“When you’re at the end of the road, and you lost all sense of control, and your thoughts have taken their toll…your faith walks on broken glass–and the Hangover doesn’t pass (nothing’s ever built to last) : You’re in ruins!”
“The Chance Theater”—the official resident theater company of Anaheim California is boldly taking musical-theater audiences where they may never have gone before, as they celebrate the Orange County regional premiere of “Green Day’s American Idiot”! Based on the band’s Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum album of the same name, this Tony Award-winning rock extravaganza spotlights music by “Green Day”, with lyrics by the group’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, who co-wrote the book along with Michael Mayer. Currently playing on “The Chance’s” “Cripe Stage” of the “Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, this new production is directed by James Michael McHale and Choreographed by Miguel Cardenas while the Musical Direction is by Gabrielle Maldonado. Inasmuch as this winner of two “Tony Awards” isn’t exactly what you’d call your typical “Feel Good” musical, (many of its elements and the veracities they express can, at times, be downright disquieting,) it would be too great an injustice to such surprisingly pithy material to casually write-off “American Idiot’ as merely a ‘punk-rock’ or ‘new wave’ musical. It is always riveting to watch (and listen to) –the very essence of a rare and remarkable theatrical experience.
Performed sans intermission, the story spans a period from 2004 to 2006 and examines the lives of three young friends: “Johnny” (who calls himself “The Jesus of Suburbia) and his best buds, “Tunney” and “Will”. All recent high school graduates, they each try to navigate this “Alien-nation” that is modern day America in the direct aftermath of 9-11, while they attempt to figure out who they are and how to “do something” with their lives. “Are we gonna waste our lives or are we gonna get the fuck outta here?!” Johnny asks (or put more overtly, confronts) his pals before giving them bus tickets bound for ‘the big city’ (bought with money he initially bragged he got from robbing a liquor store, until he finally confesses that in reality, it was his mother who gave him the money—to get rid of him!) Their plans to strike out as the devoted ‘team’ they were in school, however, are curtailed when “Will’s” girlfriend “Heather” announces she’s pregnant, causing him to be left behind while the other two run off to (what they hope) is a new urban playground, where they remain together—for a while anyway. The threesome’s adventures principally begin though, when they separate to face life on their own–each with results that are, admittedly, not always so favorable. Of course, there’s also grass and booze in abundance with these guys—and one might also imply these are what fuels them–yet not a second here is gratuitous. The events in each narrative all feed into the prevailing ‘like-it-or-not’ assertion that young people today have it far from easy. Just about at the mid-point of the story, our three heroes—now divided by circumstances—“spiritually” reunite briefly for “21 Guns”—arguably the most renowned of the score’s inclusions. Commencing as a shared fevered dream each endures across the miles (and sung in tandem with the women in their lives,) this one starts out misleadingly gentle before building into a tidal wave of raw ‘feeling’ (one which gives the production an even greater potency!) What’s more, melodically, quite a few of the show’s best moments arise as the three guys sing in harmony. Another stellar example of this is “Wake Me Up When September Ends” as each enter with guitars and which they actually play as they sing world-weary lyrics that many are sure to find especially cogent to what’s going on today. In fact, one of the most enthralling (and intriguing) aspects to “Green Day’s” songs included, are how they speak such unvarnished, often-excruciating verities about contemporary humanity–and frequently do so in few words or purely through the power of repetition. What also sets this show apart is in the way each role and performance is so intermingled (and reliant on) all the others.
All things considered, “American Idiot” is a very good ‘fit’ for a more intimate venue like “The Chance” and Director McHale makes the most of this intimacy. At its heart it is, ostensibly, three smaller and very personal stories told in a huge and boisterous way. Indeed, one of the aims of the original production was to overwhelm the senses, and while that’s all fine and good, much of the subtler messages can get lost in the visuals; happily, such is not the case here. What you get rather, is your perceptions piqued—not pummeled! Better yet is that McHale has changed the show up just enough to keep it fresh and pertinent for today’s audiences while staying faithful to the show’s cardinal intent, which was born of the grunge-fueled angst of the 1990’s as it toppled over into the new millennium. Once the houselights dim, several video screens of varying sizes broadcast snippets of vintage news footage, which will appear at various intervals throughout. Several of them have purposefully been kept anachronistic (beyond the show’s initial timeframe,) including those involving Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Kamala Harris—figures hitherto not making headlines all that much back in 2004, but here to remind us of the validity of this story and the ‘bigger picture’ its subject-matter embraces, all of which are no less applicable today—if not more so. (If anything, though, the scenes of youth ‘protest’ toward the beginning of the show—considered cutting edge at the time–almost seem quaint, orderly, and innocent in these days in the wake of the tumultuous summer of 2020.) Once home again, in yet another novel twist this production boasts, we find our heroes have reconciled–and even form a band not unlike “Green Day” itself. The hit “Time Of Your Life” is one more amazing number which Director McHale can be credited for maintaining. Cut from other recent revivals, here, he acknowledges that it fundamentally is the whole ‘moral’ of the show—urging us to appreciate that, good, bad, or indifferent, life often is what comes to us and how we react to it is what really matters. Pursuant to the final bows, the audience is sent away with this pithy—even upbeat–message contained within the song’s lyrics.
Dance-wise, Miguel Cardenas’ choreography similarly recalls the times and places giving relevance and verve to the evolving stories. The show’s title number which launches the proceedings is one Hell of an opening—utilizing the complete company (‘disciples’ of our “Jesus Of Suburbia”) as they ascend the stage for some dynamic old-school, Pre-twerking ‘mosh pit’ maneuvers, including lots of kicking and striking out into the air–a not so subtle indication of teen-age rage that maybe aimed at nothing in particular, but everything in general (the “summit of hysteria”, as the lyrics advise us.) He’s also insightfully infused motion in smaller doses all through the proceedings where often it serves more as kinetic ‘punctuation’ amid the longer and more intricate musicalized passages. He also uses movement—plain or complex–to enhance the sweeping surreality of the goings-on. For instance, with “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” he capitalizes on the number’s pulsating rhythms by devising activity that evolves into a simple but effective “Zombie” trance-like walk around the stage. There’s also “Extraordinary Girl”, where “Tunny” (on the eve of a critical and life-changing leg operation,) ‘hallucinates’ a lively balletic encounter with the army nurse who has been tending to him—and whom he may be falling in love with. This isn’t to say though, that the show is devoid of any of your more ‘expansive’, full-cast group endeavors, it just doesn’t rely on them to further the plot. When they do turn up though, they are always something to be seen—thanks in large part to Cardenas’s obvious familiarity with the steps and styles required to make each routine truly rock! Such is the case with the frenetic (or perhaps more aptly, ‘angry’) dance sequence he inserts into “Last Of The American Girls”, setting the place while solidifying the mood as “Johnny” and his new girlfriend (whom he only cryptically refers to as “Whatsername”,) briefly engage in some herky-jerky exchanges out on the dancefloor of a local ‘rave’ they’re attending, until “Johnny” essentially–and symbolically—’changes partners’: this time to “St. Jimmy”, a malevolent drug-dealer who portentously gives him his first dime-bag before they’re done.
Given the more complex vein of music and its heavier, harder-driving arrangements, it would be easy for these to overpower a lesser group of singers, but thrillingly each are such strong performers and vocalists in their own rights this never happens (the music serves the singers, not the other way around!) Leading the cast as our “Anti-Hero” Johnny (A.K.A. “The Jesus Of Suburbia”,) Jared Machado has a strong stage presence and a robust voice that’s reminiscent of Billie Joe Armstrong. His storyline is the primary one and he carries it well. His delivery of “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (I Walk Alone)” is exceptional. (This is also where “Johnny” meets “Whatsername”–the girl who may just be the love of his life.) He follows this up with “Last Night On Earth” opposite her, as “Johnny and his new lady love shoot up together for the first time. Later, Machado’s handling of “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, sung as all three guys ‘metaphorically’ come together one more time, is itself as awesome. It could even be suggested that THIS is among the show’s most memorable stretch of stage-time. (You’ll either get chills down your back or tears in your eyes—but either way count on being deeply affected by this one.) Shortly after, once Johnny ‘hits bottom’ and attempts to ‘straighten out’ his life, his turn with “East 12th Street” is equally well conveyed, relating how our boy gets a run-of-the-mill, nine-to-five office job which here, is depicted as tantamount to suicide: “So far away, I don’t want to stay! Get me outta here right now,” he pines; “I just want to be free, is there a possibility? Get me out of here right now–this life-like dream ain’t for me!” Machado also triumphs with “When It’s Time” (this time also accompanying himself on Guitar,) which slows things down a bit to give us a softer, less manic side to his characterization. Then, in the end, his wistful “Whatsername”—a simple song, but potent in its expression and lyrics, has “Johnny” looking back at this girl who ‘got away’ and all of the poignant ‘could’ve beens’ their life together might’ve brought him.
As “Whatsername”, Erika Mireya Cruz provides another comparably strong stage presence with a gold-medal voice—and even better, given a heightened depth and dimensionality to her portrayal—more than any other among the dramatis personae here, hers is the one who gets to display numerous expressive colors in her acting palate. “She puts her make-up on like graffiti on the walls of the heartland”, “Johnny” sings in the midst of “Last Of The American Girls/She’s A Rebel” upon their first meeting. This quickly becomes a top-notch duo when Ms. Cruz joins him, offering up a masterful counter-refrain. Immediately thereafter, she excels all over again with her solo phrases in “Last Night On Earth”, exhibiting some genuine power in her vocals (making this one a bona-fide powerhouse pairing opposite Mr. Machado!) Dramatically, she also packs a proverbial punch launching the show’s stirring emotional centerpiece, “21 Guns”; that said, if there was one number of hers that could categorically be called “worth waiting for” though, it would be the compelling way she takes the lead in “Letter Bomb”—”Whatsername’s” (and well, all the other women’s really,) ultimate ‘declaration of independence’ from “Johnny’s” (and all the guys’) “bullshit and baggage”. This is undoubtedly Ms. Cruz’s sincere moment of glory as she, at long last, ‘wakes up’ to let her rage and disappointment be felt: “It’s not over ‘til your underground,” she rages; “it’s not over until it’s too late!” (You’ll undeniably know you’ve been through something once you’ve gotten a taste of this!) Although not sharing as much stage time as his ‘buddies’, Christopher Diem nonetheless makes his outstanding mark as “Will” –the one who stayed behind while his pals head-off to pursue presumably bigger, more exciting things. In prior stagings (including on Broadway,) “Will” has simply been left on stage with little to do for the entire time while the action occurs ‘around him’—which can, frankly, be a very trying situation for any actor. This time around though, the Director has wisely allowed “Will” to instead pop in and out of the action as his character is called upon. When he does appear though, it’s often with a fold-up “couch”, which after a while, virtually comes to resemble a casket with its lid open (still more shrewd and subtle symbolism.) Diem too, has an impressive voice and flair for the score’s overall genre, which he validates with “Too Much, Too Soon (Tales From Another Broken Home)”. Presented early on, this gives him the opportunity to furnish an absorbing intensity to the verses he shares with Angie Chavez, as “Will’s” girlfriend and baby-mama “Heather”, once she decides conclusively to cut her losses and head out with their baby in tow. Later, his “Give Me Novocain” (performed with “Will’s” ever-present bong in hand) rates as another authentic highlight the production can lay claim to.
Completing our triad of protagonists, Eric Dobson also exudes plenty of cool likeability as “Tunny”—another one of the most complex figures in the piece. As the story opens, “Tunny”, your everyday, run-of-the-mill stoner who would rather protest the U.S. than ever think of serving it, rails “Let’s start a war, shall we?!” Then, as “Johnny” and “Tunny” head out on their own, their jivey anthem, “Holiday” flourishes into a first-class duet between the two, as they lose no time becoming embroiled in the ‘shady underbelly’ of the city (which also gives us our first glimpse of the malevolent–albeit extremely seductive–“St. Jimmy”, as well as the echoes of her first solo notes in the show!) Things seriously change for “Tunny” over the course of “Favorite Son”. Originally unfolding as the lad passively watches a paid advertisement on TV starring (who else?) America’s ‘image’ of the “All American Favorite Son” of the title, here it’s been cleverly re-envisioned to make “Tunny” that self-same representation– he IS “The Favorite Son”, and as such the sole focus of the number, culminating with him donning a Marine’s Uniform and becoming an enlisted soldier right before our eyes. “Tunny’s dreams turned ‘Red, White and Blue,” Johnny describes afterward; “But I thought that good guys don’t wear red, white and blue…nobody seems to agree on anything these days!” Subsequently, Dobson does a brilliant and evocative job leading “Are We The Waiting”—giving it all the needed power and passion, as “Tunny” and other recruits are shipped off to probable doom. Before long, this turn of events leads into “Before The Lobotomy” once “Tunny”, having been severely wounded in battle, awaits life-altering surgery on his leg, and sings of all his fears and forlorn life realizations with other severely wounded soldiers. (This also features the darkest lyrics in the entire piece: “Dying–everyone is dying,” they intone; “Hearts are washed in misery…Drenched in gasoline.”) Directly after, “Tunny’s” most decisive interlude comes with “Extraordinary Girl”, wherein he dreams of the pretty military ward nurse who becomes his literal lifeline. This burgeons into an ethereal dance segment betwixt the two (Unusual? Yes—but at least it illustrates how this hapless boy hasn’t completely lost hope.)
Likewise, Dagmar Marshall-Michelson is thoroughly magnificent as the sinister “St. Jimmy”. Taking on the same role Armstrong himself played on Broadway, Ms. Marshall-Michelson very well could be considered akin to this production’s ‘secret weapon’. Not only does her solid vocal talents and strong song-styling abilities suit this kind of music, with “St. Jimmy” being re-imagined from male to female, this gives her much more power and resonance on stage (and she certainly lives up to it!) Clad in a skin-tight blood-red bodystocking with rows of silver chains running across the bodice (eerily evocative of a human ribcage,) she handily captivates a headstrong kid like “Johnny” as only a wily, worldly Femme Fatale could, and her invisible presence is always felt, for all intents, standing in between he and “Whatsername” as an ominous, ever-looming “third” party in their relationship. She dazzles with her Introductory chanson “St. Jimmy”, as our boy “Johnny” discovers (and at length, falls victim to) the not-so-wonderful-world of drug addiction. “Do You Know Your Enemy?” is another win for “St. Jimmy” before she’s joined by Machado, Dobson, and Diem (and eventually the full ensemble,) making for an additional—unexpected–‘crowning moment’ in the show. Meanwhile, splendid support is offered by Kristen O’Connell as “The Extraordinary Girl”, who demonstrates how adept a dancer she is too boot, by pulling off some pristine ballet moves (—including a breathtaking series of tour Jetes and grand battements,) as part of “Tunny’s” ‘somnambulant’ rendezvous with her. Ms. O’Connell’s sympathetic presence also goes a long way in lightening the ‘mood’ whenever she’s on stage. Angie Chavez also shines as “Heather” (Will’s Baby-Mama) Her rhythmic descant ‘‘Dearly Beloved”, as “Heather” decides it’s long past time to take the baby and leave her pot-smoking, terminal couch-potato boyfriend, is a bouncy intermezzo with a 50’s ‘rock and roll’ beat that she sings admirably well (ably backed by Sophia Barajas as “Heather’s Best Friend”.) This leads into the more forceful and aggressive “Too Much, Too Soon”, just ahead of her every-bit-as-laudable contribution to “21 Guns”—both of which she holds up her parts in, every bit as laudably.
If ever there was a musical that benefitted from sheer creativity, this one would definitely be up there at the top of the list. As a matter of fact, the design team at “The Chance” seem to be on top of their game with this one! Kristin Campbell’s immersive set design favors a lush red-white-and-blue motif—even the floor is painted with a pastiche of stars and stripes patterns, while positioned rear stage center is a sizable red curtain which, when unveiled, reveals a secret “private booth” (comparable to one that might be found in a grimy old adult bookstore.) Her achievements are enhanced by Andrea Helman’s superb lighting designs which vibrantly paint the goings-on in an abundance of color when so required, but can also turn to more stark illumination or murky amber-tinged darkness as the undertakings calls for (and, as the efforts of Campbell and Helman encompass the whole of the auditorium, their innovations and artistry here go a long way in making tangible the world this tale is transpires in.) Just as noteworthy are the numerous projections by Projection Designer Nick Santiago. Because they are kept swift and limited to mainly key moments (where they’re used to comment on, or accentuate a specific concept,) they are all the more effective when they do appear. (And because the screens are kept camouflaged at the outset until their ‘unveiling’ during the opening, they offer audience members a delightful little jolt of amazement once they do materialize.) Every smidgen as vital to the show’s success are the costumes which, unlike the Broadway originals that favored your stereotypical ‘teen’ garb indicating a character’s status (I.E. cheerleader, jock, stoner, nerd, etc.) Costume Designer Bradley Allen Lock has alternatively chosen a more abstract selection of clothing—in some ways bleaker or even more dystopian (but then again, these kids are hardly Archie, Betty, Veronica, Ritchie Cunningham or Danny Zuko!) Take the spot-on ‘nu-metal’ outfits our three leads sport, or his more daring choices for the ‘disciples’ of this “Jesus Of Suburbia”: Black leather vests with spiked helmets, (think of something like an outlaw biker gang serving time in Broadway’s answer to Purgatory!) From funny to ferocious though, each article worn ingeniously helps create precisely the right impression each scene or musical number requires it to—and does so with a dyed-in-the-wool fashionista’s discerning acuity. Not to be overlooked either is the stalwart (and hardworking) On-stage band stationed off to the right of all the goings-on. They are: Jimmy Beall on Bass, Curtis Humphrey and Ryan Navales on Electric Guitars and Jorge Zuniga on Drums (this show could absolutely NOT exist without them!)
In light of the current state of COVID-19 in Southern California, “The Chance Theater” requires “General Performance” ticket holders to wear a mask at all times while inside the “Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”; for “Vaccinated Performances”, all patrons must provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, while masks are still strongly recommended inside the theater and lobby regardless of vaccinated status. After “Previewing” from July 15th through July 22nd, “Green Day’s American Idiot” ‘officially’ opened on July 23rd, where it is slated to play through August 14th 2022, at “The Chance Theater” located at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, 5522 La Palma Avenue, Anaheim, Ca. Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto www.ChanceTheater.com or via phone by calling: (888) 455-4212
Production Photos by Doug Catiller and Camryn Long, Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater” http://www.ChanceTheater.com ; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Oanh Nguyen, James Michael McHale, Miguel Cardenas, Gabrielle Maldonado, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2022 Regional Premiere Production Of “Green Day’s American Idiot” For Making This Story Possible.
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