Chicago Theatre Review
Rock N’ Roll Rage
American Idiot – The Hypocrites
When I saw this musical on its first trip through Chicago, I was nervous. The “angry at the world” rock musical treats have always left me cold. Even in my youth, I have not been one of the revolutionaries against the adult regime; however, I did like Green Day’s rock opera album of the same name. Being an theatrical optimist, I was looking forward to The Hypocrite’s new take on this not so very old musical offering.
What I found during this musical was a mix of old and new attitudes and innovations that found me evenly perplexed and elated at the same time. This version of American Idiot connected too hard in some spots, and not hard enough in others.
I appreciated director Steven Wilson’s notes about keeping this musical timeless; however, I think that context of anger and disillusionment is important. While the young will always continue to rage on against themselves and the world, the context within the play is important for the audience to connect. I think the context of 9/11 gives the musical an edge, or perhaps now after so many years, a reminder of why everyone seemed so angry at that time. Just being angry is notable, but not not engaging.
The energy was high as the audience took their seats while the actors revved up the crowd. I enjoyed the “rotating” warm-up band during the pre-show.
The first three songs moved quickly in manic fashion. The pace seemed VERY fast as three main characters, Johnny, Will and Tunny, emerge from the story. The disillusionment of these three characters are at the heart of the story. In his general malaise of discontent, Johnny (Luke Linsteadt) convinces his buddies to leave for the big city. He has stolen some cash and has the tickets. Unfortunately for Will (Jay W. Cullen), his girlfriend Heather (Alex Mada) is pregnant. He cannot leave, he is stuck. The couch and the bottle become his weapons of self destruction. Tunny (Steven Perkins) leaves with him and to the city they go. Johnny finds drugs and Tunny finds the Army. Each man must face his own solitude and themselves. Johnny engages in a heroin dealing alter ego manifested as St. Jimmy (Malic White). St. Jimmy brings him together with Whatshername (Krystal Worrell) and heroin. They shoot up, sleep together and after a time Johnny chooses heroin over Whatshername.
Back on the couch, we find Will, with fed up Heather finally leaving him. She must find her path with her child somewhere else.
Tunny has joined the Army and while serving in battle, he is injured and his leg is compromised. While in the hospital he is sedated and he pines (and sings with) for his hometown love, Extraordinary Girl (Becca Brown) Although impossible in this space to recreate the original staging, I thought it was a missed opportunity to display Tunny’s vulnerability and his deep feelings of hope through Extraordinary Girl. The concert treatment of them playing together in a dream fell flat for me, but their relationship from the beginning numbers was not clearly defined.
After Johnny tries to injure Whatshername (which wasn’t entirely clear), she finally leaves, and he is left bereft of her love. He faces off with his drug life and forces out St. Jimmy in a symbolic suicide. Johnny quickly becomes part of the rat race office life, he is frustrated again, and finally heads back to where he started.
Will peaceably squares off with his ex girlfriend Heather and their baby, (AND her new rock’n roll boyfriend).Tunny, on crutches, returns and is also reunited with the Extraordinary Girl. Enter Johnny as he laments his greatest love, but knows that his rage will somehow always be a part of his life. All is forgiven. All have returned with lessons learned and all hearts (for the moment) satisfied.
Luke Linsteadt as Johnny, gives this show a perfect believable and human edge. I enjoyed his voice and tender moments. He was fresh and easily believable. Well done. As Will, Jay W. Cullen, keeps his apathy fresh and on point. He was convincing in what I think is a thankless role, as he sits on the couch – a lot. (I am glad he got to play in the band from time to time too) Steven Perkins as Tunny, gives solid performance. I thought he showed more depth of character as the show went on. All three gentlemen have great singing voices, best exemplified when the band and ensemble were subdued, allowing their voices to be heard.
I think over all many of the group numbers were VERY hard to understand. The misstep is having enthusiasm over content. I loved all the energy, but sometimes it was confusing as to what was being sung. Although it is a rock n’ roll show, it is still a musical, and the story needs to be understood. If the levels can be modified, it would be more engaging. Especially, at the beginning during the first three numbers.
The girlfriends of the shattered trio all gave solid performances, as well as the ensemble. I enjoyed the fact that all the actors participated in all the music making. It pulled the cast energy together and showcased the casts musical talent well.
I liked that St. Jimmy was an androgynous figure, although it takes away a bit of his connection to Johnny. I wanted more menacing rather than “devil made me do it”. Malec White gives a dedicated and calculated performance.
The set was useful, but seemed too small for the size of the cast. Sometimes the choreography, although very well done,(Katie Spelman), seemed cramped. The lighting (Heather Gilbert) is a standout, and helps transport the audience along the journey. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes seemed like a fusion of timeless rock and roll accessories and rebel youth standards.
And finally, the music was enjoyable and well executed. Andra Velis Simon seemed to pull this youthful ensemble together for a high energy sing along. But the best moments were in the quiet ones. The solos and small group numbers cut through the misty story and began to move the audience and bring them with the actors. The music is good and these moments and voices showcased the tender lyrics and melodies. The large ensemble, while loud and proud, were hard to comprehend and therefore disengaging.
Although this story ends with a “there’s no place like home” sweetness, (lesson?) the audience gets to see how each party got there, and speculate on their success once they return to the familiar.
This production of American Idiot brings a youthful exuberance to its stage. But with a little more thoughtful and deliberate execution all audiences could feel more connected and empathetic.
Reviewed by Lazlo Collins
American Idiot at The Hypocrites at the Den Theatre’s Main Stage through Oct. 25, 2015.
Tickets are currently available at www.the-hypocrites.com
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found by visitingwww.theatreinchicago.com.