UM School of Theatre & Dance’s American Idiot continues at the Montana Theatre Thu., April 26 – Sat., April 28.
I saw Green Day above the Union Club in 1991, the year the band released 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours. Those pop-punk songs (an anthology of early tracks) captured a general disregard for adulthood and decorum that I related to, even if they were mostly vapid love songs about checking out cute girls in the library. Green Day wasn’t really edgy so much as they embodied the fun, carefree, middle-finger-flipping attitude I sometimes needed to balance out darker, more serious bands I liked, including the Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi (both of whom also played Missoula around the same time). And at the Green Day show there was a lot of joyful letting loose: sweaty “slam dancing” and smiling kids ecstatic for a momentary escape.
I missed out on Green Day’s 1994 breakout album, Dookie, mostly because I’d moved onto other music (weird bands from K Records and hardcore from Dischord Records, and probably some embarrassing stuff I’ve blocked from my memory). But I did see them play that year at Woodstock 1994, and they did a good job of embracing the same boisterous pop-punk angst as before — though it felt a little glossy, like punk wrapped in pretty packaging.
That’s how American Idiot feels, too. The play, based on the band’s 2004 punk-rock opera album of the same name, is basically Hair for the 1990s. It follows a crew of suburban punks, disgruntled with society, who navigate the big city (and the Army), make some bad choices and learn from the consequences. The University of Montana’s School of Theatre & Dance opened its production of American Idiot last week. It’s directed by Pamyla Stiehl and stars Diego Kjelland as Johnny, whose restless life sends him off on a journey to find himself in “the city.” Kjelland, a UM freshman, is a talented performer and musician (we recently wrote about his local musical pedigree) and he nails the hyperactive, Billie Joe Armstrong-style angst with ease. Most everyone pulls off their roles well in this production, though Curen Feliciani as Will — the guy who stays in suburbia after his girlfriend, Heather, gets pregnant — stands out as one of the most believable and empathetic characters.
The production features a lot of other great elements. The big screen at the back of the stage introduces the audience to the politics and culture of the time with snippets from “The Jerry Springer Show” and news about the Iraq war and even an old soundbite from Donald Trump about running for office. The ensemble cast also provides some entertaining song-and-dance numbers, especially picking up the pace with “Holiday,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Favorite Son,” in which Jake Bender steals the first half of the show as a sunglasses-wearing mirage humping the stage. The super-talented Josh Farmer Band, which is perched above the stage and plays the show’s live score, gives the often incoherent story some thrilling consistency.
The problem with American Idiot is that it’s meant to be a snapshot of a time and subculture, but the music and storyline don’t quite have the depth or nuance to execute anything meaningful. Angst in the form of a musical feels canned. And the female roles (played with solid effort by the actors) are still sidenotes to the main punk heroes (two of them don’t even have names, they’re just known as “Whatshername” and “Extraordinary Girl”).
What if we turned some other favorite anti-establishment bands into musicals? The Dead Milkmen opera (we could call it Plum Dumb) would start in Tiny Town with a bunch of white supremacists trying to beat up the punks. Later, we’d get a (bitchin’) Camaro scene down at the shore, a lot of ranting (“Stuart”) and a “Punk Rock Girl” finale.
I would definitely watch a musical based on the music of Gang Green, who can make songs about drinking beer sound like grand adventures (as in the song “Bartender,” where they order beers “two by land, two by sea!”). Obviously every performance could be sponsored by Budweiser.
Indy calendar editor Charley Macorn suggests a GG Allin musical called Stop the World! GG Allin Wants to Get Off. Let your imagination run with that one.
Despite its political subplots (war) and the lessons about drug abuse, American Idiot feels like it’s missing some overarching point. The play is abrasive by nature, but when it tries to pull the audience in, it loses its edge. It’s also hard to know what to learn from the story, aside from the vague notion we hear in one of the final songs, the commercial earworm “Good Riddance,” in which Johnny sings about having “the time of your life” no matter which fork in the road you take. And if that’s the central theme of American Idiot, then maybe it all makes sense. There are a lot of effective political bands in the world, but Green Day — like so many pop-punk bands that started underground in the late 1980s and 1990s — was at its most authentic and rebellious when it served as an escape from reality, not an accommodation.