Theatre Reviews

American Idiot

American Idiot

Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer

Music by Green Day

Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong

Directed by Steven Wilson

Musical Direction by Andra Velis Simon

Choreography by Katie Spelman

Produced by The Hypocrites

Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago

The Pride and Agony of Broadway Punk

It really sucks to be a rebel with a sense of self-awareness. That’s the impression I get from Steven Wilson’s re-imagining of American Idiot, the 2010 musical adapted from Green Day’s 2004 album, now being produced by The Hypocrites. Having dispensed with the anti-Bush politics of the original in favor of a focus on the lives of young people in punk culture, Wilson’s character-driven show is much stronger emotionally, and more introspective. Best of all, Andra Velis Simon’s music direction and Rick Sims’ sound design are carefully adjusted for The Den Theatre’s downstairs space, allowing Green Days’ music with new orchestrations and choral backups to be appreciated fully.

Jay W. Cullen, Luke Linsteadt, and Steven Perkins. Photos by Evan Hanover.

When we enter the theatre, we are greeted by a friendly, youthful cast in full punk gear and make-up by Mieka van der Ploeg. It feels like the communal atmosphere before an indie concert, instead of something that in a very different form, was on Broadway. The show begins with the title song, “American Idiot,” which is about resisting conservative media, with Steven Perkins as the heavy-lidded, despondent main vocalist, and the cast split between musicians and dancers. Most of the eighteen performers alternate during the evening between playing instruments upstage and characters on the main floor. Perkins himself, who has a fine tenor voice, plays Tunny, one of three young men who languish in the less affluent. His friends are Johnny (Luke Linsteadt) and Will (Jay W. Cullen), and though their lives have been materially provided for, they’re lack of challenges and chances to grow has left them depressed. Johnny proposes they move to the city, and though Will can’t because his girlfriend is pregnant (I don’t know why they keep it), Tunny is willing to try a change in setting.

Isa Arciniegas, Krystal Worrell, Elisa Carlson, and Becca Brown

Johnny’s mother paid for his bus tickets, much to his embarrassment. This is a guy whose first words at the top of the play were to proclaim that he’d successfully masturbated, with a twelve-year-old’s sense of accomplishment. He hopes that the city will be dismal enough to vindicate the cynical view of life he developed in response to his parents’ marital problems, and is disappointed to find it’s been cleaned up. Fed up with Johnny after about three days, Tunny joins the Army, and is dispatched to Iraq, where he loses a leg. Left to become a street musician, Johnny starts dating a girl he calls Whatshername (Krystal Worrell), who, according to him, “knows I’m full of shit, but thinks I’m cute.” Still determined to be the “Jesus of Suburbia,” and looking for martyrdom, Johnny experiments with heroin. The personification of his addiction appears as St. Jimmy, who played by Malic White, is an angry imp with manic energy and endless charisma. The three take a selfie.

That’s not the only time in this show someone takes a selfie either, and it’s actually quite significant. These characters are aware that they are going through a well-trodden phase. Their costumes are very similar, down to almost all of them having a skull on the backs of their jackets, due to their performative nature in-universe. It’s not that Johnny’s a poser, it’s that he knows on some level that his rebellion is fostered as much by mood disorders he will someday recover from as by a desire for social change. One of the most memorable and affecting moments of Wilson’s staging is late in the show when Whatshername seizes the microphone, and is joined by the other female performers for the song “Letterbomb,” which denounces the stupidity of the common attitude, embodied by St. Jimmy, that self-destruction is a necessary step toward self-discovery.

Malic White (center)

What makes Johnny tolerable is that, as played by Luke Linsteadt, Whatshername summed him up accurately. His rendition of American Idiot’s most popular song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” is lovely, particularly as in this arrangement he is accompanied by female back-up singers and Elisa Carlson on the violin. Thanks to the actors’ ability to sell the emotional state of their songs, the show’s best moments are its calmest, such as “Twenty-One Guns” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” though Katie Spelman’s choreography keeps the energy of the louder songs focused. The drum set is behind a plastic barrier and the drummers were restrained, so the melodies are clear, and volume is used judiciously, as in “She’s a Rebel.” Despite it not being a scream-heavy show, some of the performers’ voices were strained, although most of them were still enjoyable. Despite having been made in response to the national political climate in 2004, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt expressed hope that American Idiot would have a timeless appeal. The Hypocrites’ production found the core ideas that made Green Day’s album so popular, and carried out their goal of keeping it relevant.


Jacob Davis

This show has been Jeff recommended.

Playing at The Den Heath Main Stage, 1329 N Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are $28-36; to order, visit Performances are Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through October 25. Running time is ninety-five minutes with no intermission.