Review: ‘American Idiot’ at The Keegan Theatre

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The Keegan Theatre’s American Idiot speaks to collective genius.

Hardly a no-brainer to mount this explosive, war-weary work, weaned in the Bush II era, at the height of today’s media-hijacked, cock-eyed presidential campaign. (Careful, now, no name-calling or naming names. Hand gestures should suffice.)

Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, and Josh Sticklin and cast members. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, and Josh Sticklin and cast members. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

But the payload of mixing Ritalin-wracked choreography, transcendent stagecraft and megaphonic riffs on arrested suburban development? Effing inspired.

Based on Green Day’s Grammy Award-winning 2004 LP and adapted for the stage by the punk rock band’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, and original director Michael Mayer, the show is a salvo to teen angst and a salve for those kids who came of age amid the reverb of 9/11.

Few rock albums perhaps have made the leap from turntable to stage as seamlessly as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, hitting Broadway a year after the 1970 release of its concept album, or The Who’s Tommy, whose amazing journey from disc to theater debut took 23 years. Green Day’s American Idiot borrows a bit musically and thematically from both – the self-martyrdom, those fumbling-around outcasts, heavy guitar therapy – but the strongest echoes are of the culture clash in the Sixties tapestry Hair, which the Keegan’s creative power couple Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea took on triumphantly two short seasons ago, before the theater’s eye-popping transformation. In a way, this production is similarly spit-shined and updated.

Like Hair, American Idiot overlays a war on foreign soil with conflict at home. But unlike the uniform rebellion of the 1960s tribal flower children, the 9/11 generation is not in lockstep protest. Theirs is a triangulated prism of pain, with principal player Johnny exorcising demons as he embarks on his own private drug war; his buddy Tunny, a soldier enlisted in a never-ending battle to heal; and stoner Will, “busy” back home fighting responsibility.

Eben K. Logan and The Extraordinary Girls. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Eben K. Logan and The Extraordinary Girls. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Also like Hair, character sketches trump narrative here. But Keegan’s production ekes out story from every angle, starting with Set Designer Matthew Keenan’s heartrending construction. Three giant frames are tilted onstage, decoupaged in polemical posters to evoke pixels of a tattered American flag. The structures are braced by scaffolding where the pit band pumps octane and through which actors pass, posing between muntin bars and shattered “glass.” It’s against these surfaces that chaotic projections by Patrick Lord shock and rock us, a jumble of video and audio clips never fully realized, like that fuzzy space between stations on a radio dial or a scattered memory. “Can you hear the sound of hysteria?” We clearly see Dubya, troops in Iraq, words as jumbled graffiti and hear Sesame Street and the announcement of Reagan’s death (2004), all climaxing into a deconstructed view of Americana when the twin towers topple. Tattered. Scattered. Shattered.

And Set Dresser Carol H. Baker trades the military crates of Hair for roadie trunks that get repurposed as soap boxes, getaway vehicles (or life rafts?) in “Holiday” and, later, gurneys.

Adding to the volume is Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks, who filters flesh, bone and blood through a breathtaking array. He suggests the Venetian blinds of suburbia, the veins of straining pressure. He paints such memorable images: an IED eruption, the scrap heap of a drug den, a signature Ground Zero tribute. Brilliant.

Directors Rhea are like the wizard engineers in the control room, keeping all elements in balance. Not the least of which: a peerless ensemble of vocal artists who at times seem challenged to blast vs. nurse their sugar-coated pipes.

Harrison Smith (Johnny) — made up by Hair and Makeup Designer Craig Miller as Billie Joe’s doppelganger, complete with raccoon eyeliner and hedgehog-spiked hair — makes up for what he might lack in “vocal-ease” with a raw rocker vibe. As an actor, he’s a slam poet. Bonus that he can sell wholesale some of Green Day’s best ballads (intros to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to name two) while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. (It seems the bulk of the cast took guitar lessons for this production, but I won’t spoil that rapturous surprise.)

Smith’s compatriots Hasani Allen (Tunny) and Josh Sticklin (Will) are closer to boy-band crooners but are far from bobbleheads. Allen charms out of the starting gate then entertains a full seduction by the time “Are We the Waiting” drills home. (The drum solo by Jonathan Feuer coming out of that number and barreling toward the battlefield is chillingly foretelling.) Sticklin, whose “Give Me Novacaine” is just the shot we need, is grounded in an endearing Wayne’s World vulnerability, even as he impregnates and disappoints his Heraclitean girlfriend, Heather, played with bonfire gusto by Molly Janiga. On “Dearly Beloved,” she preaches!

In fact, the cast is overflowing with “extraordinary girls” (Chani Wereley’s sultry Extraordinary Girl to boot) and luscious locks. Eben K. Logan, as Whatshername, though, is the power ranger among them. Ironic that she would have a generic, sexist-sounding character name yet defies all limits as Johnny’s “girl of his dreams,” whom he nearly destroys in a love triangle with drug dealer/habit St. Jimmy (the torrid powerhouse Christian Montgomery in the role that Billie Joe Armstrong often jumped in on during the show’s Broadway run). Montgomery literally jumps on it, testing the “soundness” of the new theater. And with balletic grace and spunky stamina, Logan stands out as extraordinarily gifted.

Which is saying a lot, because this heroic ensemble is top-notch. They shine even brighter on songs not taken from the album American Idiot, as selections from Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown are interspersed. “Before the Lobotomy” features Allen and three of the strongest male ensemble singers, while “21 Guns,” a feminist sound-off, is a show-stopping sendoff.

 Hasani Allen (Tunny) and Chani Wereley (Extraordinary Girl). Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Hasani Allen (Tunny) and Chani Wereley (Extraordinary Girl). Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Music Director Jake Null gets huge credit for electrifying the trip – the band is idiot-proof– along with Choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan, for slipping in all sorts of uppers and downers. Sometimes the cast literally flies, alternately crouching in yoga-inspired postures. Dance Captain Melrose Pyne anchors them: hair-flinging dancers at a rave, sleepwalking along the boulevard of broken dreams, acting out violent tableaus while clinging needily to each other. And through it all, the costumes designed by Deb Sevigny add a fresh, Forever 21, fashionable grunge that almost smells of youth – like that outfit you picked out for the first day of school to make you look cool but wish was more worn-in. (The only costume WTF was dressing a military officer as a pilot and his backing femmes as Kit Kat Club meets “A Bushel and a Peck.”)

Sevigny really nailed it in “Know Your Enemy,” when the disaffected youth don suffocating suits and lash out like something from Spring Awakening. Waking up … yet not quite growing up. This “make me a sandwich” generation retains some child-like innocence ‘til the end, accentuated with their FOMO, oft-repeated, paranoid “Nobody likes you …” refrain from “Homecoming.” And soldiers’ uniforms forever fill the interstitial spaces.

It’s a multimedia experience to put the warmongers and the peacekeepers in perspective, as we deal with the inner conflict of what it means to be American and how someone like Drumpf could have the audacity to represent us.

For an ensemble that sings “I don’t care” so convincingly in Part III of “Jesus of Suburbia,” it’s clear each and every one of them cares an awful lot.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Recommended for audiences 14 and older.

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Green Day’s American Idiot plays through April 16, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

Recommended for audiences 14 and older.