The Beyond the Page Theatre Company at West Potomac High School rose to the daunting challenge of taking on Green Day’s American Idiot to great success, crafting a polished production that explored the rage and love of post-9/11, suburban American youth in an impactful way.
American Idiot opened on Broadway in 2010, with a book devised by Michael Mayer, the celebrated director of the production, and Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong. The show, focused more on expression rather than narrative, follows the divergent paths of suburbanites Johnny, Will, and Tunny and their struggles to find a place in society. The music, taken primarily from the titular 2004 Green Day album with supplemental songs taken from 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, was adapted and arranged for stage by Tom Kitt (best known for his work on the musical Next To Normal). Though Kitt preserved much of the punk essence of the original album, his complex layering of vocal harmonies and the addition of strings gave a perfect dose of theatrical nuance to the score.
The student performers in this production took on the show’s exceptionally challenging vocal parts with aplomb under the musical direction of Cathy Manley. The music was consistently executed with deft accuracy, and multi-part harmonies were smooth throughout, though the occasional incorporation of more classical-leaning vocals and liberal use of pop slides felt somewhat incongruous with the score at times. In some songs, the pit musicians would pull back their volume to a mezzo piano to allow singers to be heard more clearly at the expense of the rock power and energy that the ear craved, undoubtedly to (wisely) preserve the vocal health of the performers.
The visual composition and scenic design elements of this production were of a near-professional caliber and polish. The set, designed by Ella Moore, consisted of symmetrical sets of staircases leading up to a central platform far upstage in front of an inverted American Flag backdrop with stars replaced by white logos of hallmark American corporations, such as Starbucks and 7-11, in a cheeky jab against mass consumerism. Large panels extending into the wings featured appropriately jumbled and visually loud collages of mass media, with American flag and graffiti motifs tying the organized chaos of the design together. Scattered sheets of ripped-up newspaper created a gritty, urban feel to the aesthetic of scenes set in the city.
TV and computer monitors placed throughout the set played video projections (designed by Sam Davidson, Sam Janssen, and Liam Armstrong) that aided in the storytelling beautifully in numbers such as the tender love ballad “When it’s Time,” with an American-Beauty-esque pattern of gracefully falling rose petals setting the tone perfectly. The costumes, designed by Jordan McCray, featured denim, leather, and graphic tees and tank tops galore, with a distinctive grunge influence found in the addition of chokers, flannels, and plaid mini-skirts.
The barrage of multi-colored, moving, and strobing lights, designed by Megan Thrift, gave the show the feel of the rock concert, though some actors were occasionally left in the dark. The visually exciting choreography by Director Philip Lee Clark, Lizzy Rader, Emma Kelly, and Jordan McCray was heavily inspired by that of the Broadway production choreographed by Steven Hoggett, while still being effectively adapted to suit the levels of the entire dance ensemble. More complex dance moments were reserved for a small core of dancers in numbers such as “Favorite Son” (think a trio of 1960’s USO dancers in Vegas) and “Extraordinary Girl” (featuring Emma Kelly as the titular character fluidly executing pirouettes, fish dives, gymnastic tumbling, and high kicks).
Julian Worth carried the grit and angst of the show as Johnny, giving the impression of a 50’s All-American Boy chewed up by the monster of addiction and spit out in suburbia half a century later. Though the pacing of his scenes had a tendency to drag, he conveyed the nuance of the script’s many abstract, poetic-punk manifestos superbly.
David Jarzen and Tony Lemus complemented Johnny with solid vocals in the respective roles of war-bound Tunny and stuck-in-the-suburbs Will. Frankie Mananzan delivered a plucky portrayal of the elusive punk chick Whatsername, with her piercing voice giving a lively energy to the empowering kiss-off “Letterbomb.” As Heather, Emily Carbone crafted a strong character arc from a down-on-her luck, hopeless pregnant girl to a confident, punk-rock mama.
Liam Armstrong (Theo) and Adrianna DiLorenzo (Alysha) made the lovers’-quarrel anthem “Too Much Too Soon” a standout with the former lending the number a manic energy with his unflinching commitment to his wild character, and the latter bringing the audience to spontaneous cheers with her high-flying vocal riffs. As Johnny’s evil, corrupting alter ego, St. Jimmy, John McFarlane ordered around junkies with a sinister panache like an evil emperor of back alleys with a red, white, and blue mohawk.
At the closing of the punk rock odyssey through post-9/11 American anxieties, the production was given a new poignancy in light of the terror attacks in Paris on 11/13. A closing sequence of momentous American headlines in the recent past ended with the addition of the Eiffel-Tower-peace symbol, and the uplifting sounds and reflective lyricism of acoustic encore “Good Riddance” took on a whole new meaning as the people of France grieve in a way that is all too familiar to us Americans.
Vive la France, and God Bless America(n Idiot)!
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
American Idiot plays through November 21, 2015 at Beyond the Page Theatre Company at West Potomac High School – 6500 Quander Road, in Alexandria, VA. Remaining performance are at 7:00 PM on November 19th, 20th, and 21st. For tickets, buy them at the door or online. Because recent shows have been sold out, I highly recommend you buy your tickets online.