To think of American Idiot as just another musical would be as silly as thinking of Green Day as just another punk band. Instead, Billie Joe Armstrong has revealed himself to be in the same musical class as Pete Townsend and Joe Strummer in being able to harness the rage of rock and wrap it around a story of the times to provoke thought and emotion in audiences around the world. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll are the order of the day.
Where musicals like We Will Rock You stagger from song to song, American Idiot is a carefully crafted story of three young men – Johnny, Will and Tunny – feeling and getting lost in a post 9/11 world. A time when television was truly the drug of a nation and America was led by George W Bush while standing on the shoulders of some great music.
The smarts and craft in Armstrong’s songwriting are uncovered in the layers and lyrics of the songs featured including the riotous American Idiot, the stand out Wake Me Up When September Ends, Jesus of Suburbia, Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 21 Guns and many more. As Armstrong wrote the book for the show from the band’s concept album American Idiot, he understands intimately the pain, people and stories involved. He weaves together a powerful tale, propelled forwards by the raw rock music but occasionally pausing just long enough to reveal the humanity underneath its skin and also allow the emotion to seep between its clenched fist.
Truly a show for the 21st century, American Idiot dispenses with all the usual tropes long associated with musicals and instead gives the middle finger to tradition, breaking new ground for musical storytelling. This might make it a hard sell for some more traditional musical theatre lovers. Stunning choreography and fantastic musical performances almost make it a live dose of MTV but just enough dark nihilism grounds the show so that the rage and fear of a betrayed generation can be felt in your bones.
The production and set are clever, giving form and flow to the 15 strong UK cast including X-Factor alumni Luke Friend and Sam Lavery, who were firing on all cylinders and led by a fantastic performance from Tom Milner as protagonist Johnny. And, I must give a special mention to the four-piece live band, who were amazing throughout. All these elements came together in the standout moment, which is when amongst shadowy figures and cascading autumn leaves, the cast perform Wake Me Up When September Ends – simply a magical piece of complete theatre. The standing ovation at the end of opening night was richly deserved.
Clever, complex and a punch in the gut, American Idiot is a stage show like no other. Check it out at Auckland’s Civic Theatre until the 20th of October.
Reviewed by Mike Hales.