Theatre Review: American Idiot‘s Adelaide debut proves to be as much rock show as it is theatre

From the very first riff at the beginning of the title track, American Idiot sounded different. Even in 2004 – when baggy jeans were still cool and I was still using a CD Walkman (because iPods were too expensive) – I knew this was going to be huge. Not being old enough to have experienced the effect that rock concept albums had on people during the 60’s and 70’s, I still somehow knew that American Idiot was going to become my generation’s Tommy.

With that album, Billie Joe Armstrong and his Green Day bandmates took the leap from old guys playing young punks to old punks writing at an age appropriate level. But more than that, they took their song writing to a new level. Even then, as I read along with the lyrics, I could see that character of St. Jimmy.

He looked a lot like Johnny, this musical’s protagonist. In fact, I remember thinking in 2004 that this album would work fantastically as a musical. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one. What I’m most glad of though, is that this musical adaptation of that timeless album was brought to life in part by Billie Joe himself. Because the single best thing about this production is that it’s still very much Green Day. It hasn’t been sanitised. It’s still loud and offensive.

From confetti canons to guitar solos, this show is as much rock concert as it is Broadway production. In fact, the successful fusion of those two types of performance is a large part of what makes it so enjoyable. On first pass, I wondered if the choreography was a little underwhelming. But on reflection, I think the somewhat sloppy nature of the dancing fits both the characters’ personas and overall theme of the production to a tee. In many ways, if punks were forced to dance, one imagines this is probably how they’d do it.

The story weaves its way in and out of the lives of Johnny, Tunny and Will. Johnny’s alter ego St. Jimmy leads him into a life of drug abuse and mistakes. Tunny’s misguided sense of patriotism leads him to enlist and lose a leg in battle, and Will’s lethargy sees him lose his girlfriend and child and end up lost and alone. These characters are extrapolations from the epic lyrics of the songs on American Idiot. They’re also, according to director Craig Ilot, representative of the friendships formed between the real life Green Day members – Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool.

Linden Furnell as Johnny and Connor Crawford as Tunny were exceptional. Their energy was ceaseless and they committed to their characters with unwavering certainty. Alex Jeans as Will, whilst solid, was somewhat less convincing. He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time staring off into space. Then again, his character was an unmotivated slob, so I suppose my criticism is more of the script than his performance in this way.

And whilst the boys were good, the girls stole the show for mine. Beginning with Ashleigh Taylor as Heather (Will’s pregnant girlfriend). For a few minutes I thought I was listening to Hayley Williams. And for someone who presumably hasn’t spend her whole life fronting a pop punk band to achieve that kind of angst and belligerence whilst nailing every single note is, well, stunning. She was, for me, the most believable of all the characters.

Kayla Attard’s Extraordinary Girl deserves a special mention. Anyone who can sing like that whilst spinning upside down is okay with me. But the most powerful performance was, unquestionably, Phoebe Panaretos as Whatsername. Named after the final and possibly most raw song on the album, Phoebe was everything I pictured when listening to this album as a twenty something. Her voice could knock you out, and whilst I found her pronunciation challenging at times, it mattered little given the gravitas behind her performance. In short, her delivery of the song “Letterbomb” was a good old-fashioned showstopper.

It also summed up the story perfectly. As the song did the album. The lyrics, “It’s not over ‘til you’re underground,” and, “You’re not the Jesus of Suburbia / the St Jimmy is a figment of / your father’s rage and your mother’s love / made me the idiot American,” resolves Johnny’s character with pointed precision.

Which leaves Adalita’s St Jimmy. Phil Jamieson, Sarah McLeod and Adalita are sharing this role. Initially, I was a little disappointed to learn that it wouldn’t be Phil for this show. That attitude soon dissipated once Adalita took the stage. Magic Dirt were a massive part of my youth and for me, her presence glued the whole show together. Both her character (St. Jimmy) and her aura symbolised the essence of this show magnificently. In a rare case for theatre, her true identity shone through in the character, giving weight and credibility to the role. Actors are generally discouraged from showing their true selves, encouraged rather to become the character. I imagine the three playing this role have seen their fair share of Johnny and St Jimmys in their lives.

In short, American Idiot is not your average stage show. It’s confrontational, loud and offensive. Just like the lives of the people it portrays.

American Idiot continues at Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre until January 28th. For tickets and more information, visit the Adelaide Festival Centre website, here.

The reviewer attended this show on January 19th.

Photo: Ken Leanfore.