There is a specific air to the dread of being mediocre and underclass in California. The beaming lights of Hollywood fame, the world-class status of tech giants, the pockets of affluence dotting the coastline, wine valleys, and poorly named Silicon Valley: these are places where the best the world can offer in lifestyles is immersed in gorgeous nature.
If you’re part of it. Johnny Rotten droned an angry anthem in 1977 when he proclaimed kids had no future. Enemies of the English Punk fathers were colorful aristocrats, and the shocking popularity of commercial rebellion was less tragic and more inspiring. To be young, poor, and disenfranchised as the parade of wealth, culture and comforts rolls by endlessly is a certain kind of in-your-face hell. New York has a dirtiness and an assumed injustice, but it keeps the nightmare at bay with culture and a vibrant underground. California makes the best case for a good existential crisis.
As a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s I hung out with the punks. We’d see Jawbreaker in nasty little clubs, stage-dive, research the best way to polish our Doc Martens. For a time I let homeless crusties live in my small studio apartment in downtown Denver. I was a Misfits, Op Ivy fan. Even bands like the Clash were too polished for me. So a few nights ago I went into Triangle Productions’ new staging of American Idiot with apprehension. But the performances were so enthusiastic and fueled that I went home and put Green Day’s album on with a new appreciation for more than a piece of recent music history, and became a fan.
When Green Day’s album American Idiot stole the charts in 2004, the Punk spirit of the personal and political was pretty absent from rock and roll. We thought with W’s election Punk rock would get better, but Hip-hop took up the banner and artists like Outkast were the critical heirs to Punk’s anti-establishment charms. Green Day had served their time in the Berkeley scene, living with the homeless crusty punks on Gilman Street and coming of age with seminal bands like Operation Ivy in the late ’80s. There’s a self-righteous pecking order in the Punk world, and Green Day was always a little on the outskirts, the alienated alienated. The band’s concept album American Idiot was a surprise, but while the critics gave it a low grade, the American public claimed it a winner and a soundtrack of opposition to the Bush Jr. post 9/11 administration. You might agree with the critics that American Idiot has a pedestrian analysis of media consumption and youth disenfranchisement. It’s not as sophisticated as a Fugazi album. But for the kids at the time it wasn’t that old Punk their parents listened to. The truth is, we needed a kick-ass rock response to the politics of the age, and American Idiot was the answer.
What’s obvious about Don Horn’s direction in this Triangle season is that he’s good at uplifting and nurturing young energy and talent. He takes the performers and concentrates their skills and force of nature into a cohesive ensemble that plays off the difference in their abilities. From the casting down to actors’ place on stage, Horn’s enthusiasm for letting actors shine and reflect off of each other is contagious. You can tell from the punch and electricity this group gives off in a demanding physical and emotional performance that youth is being celebrated and cultivated. Horn is proud of the young cast, and passionate about bringing American Idiot to Triangle’s stage.
The set design is close to the original Broadway set: there’s a nod to Rent in the scaffolding and thrift-store-looking props. However, the video for Green Day’s single American Idiot is an industrial-looking space with flashing screens and the antics of the high frenzied band. The musical remains true to the band’s intention. Triangle’s set is artfully composed; every detail is thought through. Eight screens are interfaced among the multi-level framework stage. The screens aren’t just a video background or a visual component to illustrate American Idiot’s storyline, but an articulated extra space that calls in musical inferences from the outside world and images from the characters’ internal conflicts. Ian Anderson-Priddy’s video collages are reminiscent of zines – pop art, icons, visual commentaries – but are updated for a 2016 audience with text and internet images. The well-executed montage is like a rock concert laser light show with the pacing of Snapchat. Its sense of information inebriation adds to the musical’s theme of too much, too quick.
Sarah Mishler Martin’s choreography is also right on time. American Idiot is a punk musical, but with too much “musical” all the punk could be drowned. The cast dances, but like kids do at punk concerts; and under Horn’s direction their physical prowess is an authentic match to the music.
Jonathan Quesenberry leads the house band, and while in many productions he’s the thoughtful, serious conductor at the keyboard, during American Idiot he’s a rock star, whipping his head back and forth, singing along, and rocking out. As with Horn’s direction, Quesenberry’s excitement is obvious at directing the music, playing and working alongside the cast during the performance. Under his musical direction the songs live up to Green Day’s album standard of high-octane feats and meticulous precision – or in other words, putting on a damn good rock show.
Jeff Woods lights the stage with a cacophonous atmosphere that moves at the same quick speed as the ensemble and is paired well with the sonic rumble and video kaleidoscope. At times the strobe lights flash like those in a rock arena. Other times they become the climate of pressure that the kids are struggling through. The cast breaks the fourth wall often, just like real kids do, and the lighting also moves off and through the stage as an illuminated shadow of their exuberance.
Dave Cole is Johnny, Jesus of Suburbia. He’s got the Elvis eyeliner that Green Day’s headman Billie Joe Armstrong tacitly took up during American Idiot. His thick blond hair is pulled back into the relaxed look of a couch-ridden punk; he hasn’t got the energy to pull his Mohawk up. His singing is well-tempered – a little of Billie Joe, a little trained vocal work, but mostly rock and roll with a punk edge. He’s also handy with the acoustic guitar, and gives a few endearing ballads to the audience, which makes a sensible fit with the character.
The drawback to American Idiot is that the plot isn’t all too clear. But punk is irreverent, and following the rules is not the point. The story is that three kids in a California suburban wasteland look for meaning in life and become a little worse for wear, but gain some living under their belts. On that point American Idiot is part Rent and part Hair, with a heavy influence from The Who. One character, St. Jimmy, is a reference to Tommy’s Acid Queen, and the power chords of the guitars and ambient strings draw more lines to later Who. The idea of image-obsessed lower-middle-class youths out on a holiday quest also suggests a debt to the later Who concept album/musical Quadrophenia. Triangle’s American Idiot is 95 minutes of nonstop vignettes bathed in a sonic and image total environment where kids kick out the jams.
Ethan Crystal returns to Triangle’s stage, where previously he played JD in the popular production of Heathers. This time around he’s Will, still a little of the bad boy with some punk snark, but this character has more dimension. Crystal’s Will is vulnerable to the point where, while he does the right thing, he lashes out by overindulging to hide his regret. Crystal paints the picture of the loser who lights up and drinks too much on a dingy couch when, if he just made the leap, he could exercise his intelligence and promise. Will is not the antihero that Johnny is, but rather the tragic figure who plays an opposing role. Will stays home; he accepts his fall from grace and protracts his misery with self-pity. Johnny, in contrast, goes to the big city via Greyhound to look for meaning, and enters into the long artful legacy of brilliant minds holed up in seedy Hollywood hotels driven to be comatose on dirty sheets from the warm happiness of heroin. Crystal’s reedy and precise voice makes a nice complement to the charged stylings of Dave Cole’s Johnny.
St. Jimmy is a New Wave Mephistopheles, and Dale Johannes rides the character as a powerful physical presence, but also as a psychological figment of Johnny’s imagination. Johannes is a bleach-topped, pale thin duke strutting in leather trousers. He swaggers in and out of Johnny’s search for something real with an uncomplicated answer: freedom is choosing addiction. Horn has St. Jimmy working the stage and audience with a sociopathic charm: as the musical moves forward Johannes hides in the rafters like a gargoyle, excited for his descent. His moment of climax is hanging like a Christ figure from the scaffold, the inverse lord of lies, stretching out his arms to swallow Johnny with his helpless appetite for drugs.
Kelsey Bentz is the statuesque blonde who entranced recent Triangle audiences with her performance as the egomaniac lead Heather. She takes on a character by the same name in American Idiot. This Heather is troubled, too, but in a different way. She’s Will’s girlfriend, and pushes the linchpin of life-goes-on message for the troubled crew. Bentz brings to the role a sentimental and realistic emotion of a troubled kid who has to grow up quick. Her sexiness is tamed at the right moments, and her well-trained vocals show their power in both her solos and in the choruses.
Kimo Camat plays Tunny, the boy who becomes a war veteran and highlights the Hair influence to the musical. His tenor is clear, rich, and lilting. Even in the midst of performing with a rock band, his voice takes over the theater and stands out for its innate beauty. This musical has very little dialogue, and throughout the evening Cole, Crystal and Camat make trios that call and answer back with the female characters, creating a musical narrative that fills out the personalities onstage.
Lauren Steele is the girl whose name Johnny can’t remember, but who becomes his first real love. As Whatshername she’s the ’90s-looking punk girl: plaid dogpile-looking pants, a tank-top shirt, army boots. She’s got the sort of sensuality that will also bloody your lip if you move the wrong way. Horn gives her enough room to showcase her phenomenal vocal range – the church rolling vibrato, the effortless climb from middle C to high A, the low and dull sinking blues. She strikes each with natural conviction. Steele’s multiple talents are integrated with the chorus and give it a sparkling aura. She acts out in a complexity that serves match-for-match Cole’s Johnny as he slips into a one-dimensional outfit while his heroin closes its grip.
Triangle Productions’ American Idiot continues through July 2 in The Sanctuary @ Sandy Plaza. Ticket and schedule information here.
Triangle announced Monday morning that a portion of all ticket sales for the run of American Idiot will be donated to The Center, a GLBTQ center in Orlando, Florida, where a gunman murdered 50 people at the gay nightclub The Pulse over the weekend. “Show some price and support in this time of need,” Triangle’s Don Horn said in a statement. “Who knows, next time it might just be one of us!”