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Review: American Idiot at Chapel off Chapel

Review by Naomi Cardwell


Any gig disrupted by a lead guitarist rattling the cages of a graffiti-mottled orchestra pit to yell “Hey man, fuck you, man!” to the cast above is worth double the money, in my book. Theatrical’s production of American Idiot, the two-time Tony award winning musical developed out of Green Day’s hit rock album of 2004, is bringing the steeple down at Chapel off Chapel until March 26th this year.


Audience members in the millennial-and-up bracket will appreciate the harrowing sensation of seeing their teenage years historicised on stage. I can barely take myself seriously enough to believe I lived through anything so remote as “history”, yet there it is - dancing, rudely gesturing and rocking out in front of me: the annihilating post-9/11 ennui of a generation who awoke on a conveyor belt waiting to become some industry or another’s waste. I’m almost nostalgic for our naivety, believing that period was the rock-bottom antithesis to the saccharine 1950s American (and Australian!) dream of suburban bliss. If we’d only known how much more absurd it was all about to become.


While other productions have brought American Idiot forward in time to lampoon the Trump-and-Giuliani infested future of the musical, director Scott Bradley’s staging of the subject matter as history is canny and powerful. The show opens with sound bites that situate the action in its time, with the asinine utterances of a succession of white male American presidents being overwhelmed by the sound of modern war and finally blasted away altogether by the opening number. Musical Director Tahra Cannon leads a team of flannel-clad rockers who shred on guitar and righteously belt out an evocative orchestration for strings as this in-your-face rock opera takes flight.


The story revolves around three young men who unglue themselves from their television screens to plot their escape from Suburban Hell. Will (Ronald MacKinnon) is the first to fall: his girlfriend Heather’s pregnancy obliges him to stay in the burbs and try to make the best of it. As Heather, Harmony Thomas-Brown has the voice of a Disney princess and poignantly performs the subplot of Heather’s relegation into young motherhood and her eventual comeback. MacKinnon’s portrayal of hapless masculinity is magnificent as he ossifies on the couch, clutching a bottle of Jack, singing for the life he never had.


Tunny (John Mondelo) makes it to the city, only to be blown off course by an insidious army recruitment propaganda campaign on TV. The siren luring him is America’s Favourite Son, played with towering effect by Thomas Martin, who morphs monstrously from white-toothed cartoon hero to punishing drill Sargent once Tunny is in his grips. Mondelo is a strong, almost operatic singer who works hard to restore gravity to the wounded soldier pastiche the script provides, leading us to wonder how the arts ever became so blasé about injured young people struggling to put their lives back together. As the Extraordinary Girl who attends him, Tashiya Prins holds her own admirably through a series of demanding vocal parts, and her performance is a capable negotiation of the reductive fantasy girl of Tunny’s hallucinations with the reality of her character’s own entrapment in the same annihilating conflict.


All this brings us to the last man standing: Johnny, who is left to make it in the city on his own. Mat Dwyer is the quintessential rock god, armed with axe, lit in laser lights, and trialled by various Big City Temptations. When Johnny can’t cope with all the helter-skelter, his alter-ego is born. As the deplorable, oozing Saint Jimmy, Will Huang is clearly in his element. He’s the embodiment of that no-good friend your parents aways feared: skulking in the shadows, distributing suss baggies among the ensemble, and always daring Johnny to cross another boundary. Huang’s Saint Jimmy is a walking rock n’ roll retrospective to boot, with moves recalling rock’s greatest braggarts from Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis to Mick Jagger and David Bowie, replete with a tiger-print costume aping Prince, and even a smoothly executed crooner solo. If you see American Idiot for no other reason, see it for Will Huang’s epic gyrations and blistering solos.


The character of Whatsername is usually the epicentre of controversy about American Idiot’s unequal treatment of the genders. A nameless product of the city’s shady alleyways, the flannel-clad femme fatale falls victim to Johnny/Saint Jimmy’s reckless abandon and is ultimately discarded and absorbed back into the cityscape. Choreographer Grace Collins gives us a gratifying rehabilitation of this half-character by having her drag Johnny across the stage by the scruff of his shirt and throw him at the audience’s feet during one memorable number. Romy Mcilroy raises the roof in her solos, channelling Bonnie Tyler to belt out all the rage and fury she can pack in to make the limited part unforgettable.


The conundrum of staging Whatsername is one of the many reasons it works well – even though it shocks the sensibilities of this thirtysomething who still wants to feel young – to see American Idiot treated as a period piece. Vibrant, blistering, and furious, Scott Bradley’s treatment uses time to give us the distance and perspective to both rock out and ask ourselves what’s changed since Green Day were radical, middle-finger waving punks. Heather’s baby – who should now be around the age of the performers on stage – is the inheritor of Bradley’s triptych of drugged alienation, boozing suburban tedium and PTSD-riddled angst. Perhaps it’s to us - the anesthetised generation, who indulged ourselves in the belief the world was ending, that they round out the epic night by singing Nobody likes you, everyone hates you, they’re all out without you, having fun…

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