I’ve never been overly fond of musicals, mostly because I didn’t really understand them. Even as a student of film, they never made a whole lot of sense to me. Why do all of these people sing and dance in unison as if it’s a normal part of life, and then proceed to not acknowledge it at all? My girlfriend on the other hand adores them, and the theatre in general. She knew there was only one way she was getting me to see a musical, and so, for Christmas she bought us both tickets to go and see the sung-through stage adaptation of Green Day’s iconic 2004 release “American Idiot”, one of my absolute favourite albums, and one I believe to be one of the greatest pop-punk records, and concept albums of all time. We waited for two months until the opening night on February 23rd, unsure of what to expect, but excited all the same. To say it was worth the wait would be a severe understatement.
QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre) in Brisbane was sufficiently decked out with banners, posters, flags, and other assorted decorations in preparation for the event; understandable given this marked the first time the show had made its way to Australian shores since its inception in 2009. Entering the venue, you’d be forgiven for thinking Green Day themselves were actually performing, as the more traditional theatre-going crowd mingled with die-hard punk rock fans both young and old. We made our way to our seats, as I questioned the attire of some patrons who had clearly never stepped foot in a theatre before, but my cynicism soon gave way to anticipation as the 7:30pm start time ticked ever closer.
Eventually, our protagonist Johnny (Ben Bennet) wandered onto stage and took a seat on the floor, and as television screens flickered to life across the stage, the rest of the cast emerged from the shadows staring into displays, as news of wars of both the political and militant nature unfolded in front of them. Then, without warning, the company open the show with a powerful rendition of the titular track, led by Johnny, leaving audiences safe in the knowledge they were in for a real treat. Slowly we were introduced to the rest of the main cast, including Johnny’s two friends Tunny (Cameron MacDonald) and Will (Alex Jeans), as the plot progresses through a full rendition of the nine minute long Jesus of Suburbia, which results in Johnny and Tunny leaving for the city (though not before a performance of Holiday), while Will stays to take care of his pregnant girlfriend Heather (Ashleigh Barlow).
The hits continued to fly with tracks like Boulevard of Broken Dreams, St. Jimmy, Wake Me Up When September Ends, and Know Your Enemy being particularly impressive. We see a jaded and apathetic Tunny enlist in the army, Will’s life with Heather continue to spiral rapidly downwards as he begs for release, and a frustrated Johnny creating his devious and enigmatic alter-ego, St. Jimmy (Chris Cheney), whose drugs give our protagonist the confidence to purse a girl, Whatsername (Phoebe Panaretos). The three friends all suffer losses, and cope with it in their own ways, finding love, drugs, and themselves.
I won’t give too much away in regards to the plot, but I will say I was very pleasantly surprised about how much of a story could be developed from the “American Idiot” album, in addition to a few tracks from Green Day’s 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown”. The only actual speaking in the show comes in the form of a monologue by Johnny in which he reads out the date and letters he has written to various characters in the story. This serves as an addition to the songs which, when combined with some stellar vocal and acting performances, do a wonderful job of telling a meaningful and emotional story with some surprisingly in-depth character development.
From the opening number to the final bow, the whole show didn’t put a foot wrong, as each facet of the production was so perfectly crafted and executed. I am by no means a theatre buff, and so I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but for me, both Bennet and MacDonald were the real standouts of the show, with both giving vocal performances that while not perfect were believable and heartfelt, alongside impassioned and realistic acting in which the pair truly embodied their characters. Bennet’s ability to change costume so regularly and with such speed, grace, and poise was certainly an impressive feat. The young performer sang, danced, acted, and played guitar almost non-stop for the full 90 minutes, and the exhaustion showed, as you could see and hear him catching his breath heavily at times, which perhaps made it all the more impressive.
It’d be criminal to not mention the marvellous performance from the frontman of one of Australia’s most iconic rock bands, The Living End, in Chris Cheney, who transitioned from gigs to the theatre with ease. Cheney’s portrayal of St. Jimmy would have done Billy Joe Armstrong himself proud, with a show-stealing display, full of charisma, energy, passion, and undeniable musical talent. While it was only a minor role in the grand scheme of things, every time Cheney was on stage the audience were spellbound, and for good reason. I hope for those yet to see the show, that Grinspoon lead singer Phil Jamieson does an equally fantastic job.
Coincidentally, it seems that American Idiot is more relevant now than upon its release, given the current political and social climate, especially in the USA. The barebones set, spread across two floors, featuring a variety of ladders, hidden doors, and stairways, at times featured a variety of political imagery, a great deal of which focused on the recent happenings as a result of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it’s a testament to the brilliance of the album that it can still seem so relevant 13 years on, or perhaps it shows how little things have changed.
In whole, the musical will be remembered as one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen, and that extends beyond the theatre. Across the board, it was immaculately designed, and wonderfully performed. A thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable display of pure rage and love, capped off with some humorous and heartfelt moments throughout. Do yourself a favour and see this show if you can, you will not regret it.
Green Day’s American Idiot is showing at QPAC until March 12.