After a year-long Broadway run in 2010 and a US and UK tour, this musical featuring the songs of pop-punk band Green Day has now opened at the Arts Theatre for a limited run, starring X-Factor finalist Amelia Lily and West End regular Aaron Sidwell. Following the steps of ‘greatest hits’ musicals like Queen’s We Will Rock You or ABBA’s Mamma Mia!, American Idiot is set in a post-9/11 US where confusion and the loss of values threatened a whole generation.
When released in 2004, Green Day’s Grammy-winning American Idiot became a huge success and went on to stratospheric sales and number ones all over the world. With hits such as Boulevard of broken dreams, 21 guns and Wake me up when September ends, American Idiot is the kind of album deemed to become a musical at some point. Vocalist Billie Joel Armstrong became involved in the musical’s making, and it premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 (transferring to the St James Theatre on Broadway the following year) to generally positive reviews. However, as with the above-mentioned jukebox musicals, there is an underlying problem that is not solved: the story.
Johnny, Tunny and Will are three childhood friends living in a suburb who decide to move to the big city. However, Heather – Will’s girlfriend – finds out she’s pregnant, and he decides to stay. The two remaining friends lead a life of drugs and alcohol until Tunny decides to join the Army. Johnny is left with nothing but a crush on girl-next-door Whatsername and his addictions, fuelled by drug-dealer St Jimmy. It is a simple story, and it remains shallow throughout. In fact, if we add up all dialogue in the musical we would end up having less than a minute-long scene, which makes for a pretty weak plot. If we add a loud rock band (as it must be) and the fact that every two words out of three were lost in the music, the only way I could possibly understand the development of the story was to look at the actors’ actions on stage.
There are twenty-two songs in this musical, and sadly not all of them are hits. The ecstatic Green Day fans in the audience – who I am sure know the lyrics to every song – probably did understand the plot better than myself, and surely did not mind the overly-high number of songs. Of course it can be argued this is actually a rock opera, but that does not excuse the complete lack of clarity in the story’s development or in the character’s personalities.
It is, however, in the music department where the greatest strength of the musical resides: a powerful band and even more powerful singers that made the songs better than the originals every single time. Sidwell was in top form as Johnny, delivering beautiful performances (and even greater acoustic, guitar-only songs like Boulevard of broken dreams). He also had a great energy on stage, which he hardly ever left during the show. If not slightly overdone, Alexis Gerred as Tunny was also a powerhouse, being his sweet, contained counterpart Steve Rushton as Will. On the other hand, Amelia Lily (Whatsername) and Natasha Barnes (Heather) were just astonishing, delivering some of the best vocal moments of the evening, being the crazy nature of the character of St Jimmy perfectly portrayed by Lucas Rush: intense, creepy and rightfully over the top.
A greatly sung, greatly played and sleekly choreographed collection of Green Day hits, American Idiot is not the thought-provoking story it promises to be, but it does not feel completely disappointing. With great ensembles and heartfelt acoustic numbers, the shows’s talented cast keep the energy levels up and beyond, making up for the lack of an interesting story and the randomness of some of the scenes. If you are a Green Day fan, then there is no question you will be on a high all the way through. And if you are not, you can still enjoy the epic scale of some of the songs and the amazing talent on stage, which means you will leave the theatre humming 21 Guns on repeat.
American Idiot: The Musical is playing at the Arts Theatre until 27 September. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website. Photo credit: American Idiot Production Shots.