glory|struck productions, who gave Los Angeles the Scenie-winning one-two punch of Spring Awakening In Concert and bare a rock musical, are back in town with what is likely to prove the musical theater event of the season, a head-bangingly thrilling Green Day’s American Idiot brought to surround-sound and surround-sight life in the Downtown L.A. Arts District warehouse provocatively dubbed The Vortex.
Introduced to New York audiences back in 2010 as “The Groundbreaking Broadway Musical,” American Idiot broke ground indeed with its high-volume soundtrack, expletive-laced book and lyrics, and Fuck-The-Establishment attitude.
Based largely on Green Day’s 2004 concept album of the same name, American Idiot tells the tale of A Year In The Life of three societally alienated best friends and does so almost entirely in song (music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong) plus the barest minimum of dialog (book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer).
The Green Day musical introduces us to best buds Johnny (James Byous), Tunny (Jonah Platt), and Will (Matt Magnusson), whose plans for an escape from the stifling constraints of suburbia pan out for only the first two, Will opting not so willingly to stay behind with his pregnant girlfriend Heather (Briana Cuoco).
Life in the city proves too much for Tunny, who ends up enlisting in the Army and getting shipped off to desert combat. Johnny, meanwhile, sticks it out in the big city with a girl named “Whatsername” (Lindsay Pearce), a devilish alter ego known as St. Jimmy (Caitlin Ary), and heroin.
With its punk rock score, nihilistic storylines, and profusion of sex, drugs, and the F word, American Idiot makes its rock musical predecessor Rent seem relatively tame by comparison, yet it never lets us forget the humanity of its three heroes.
As for AI’s music score, Green Day’s melodies turn out to be so unexpectedly melodic and catchy under the pulsating drum beats and electric guitar licks that even those not accustomed to listening to contemporary rock may find themselves humming as they leave the theater.
Belting out Green Day songs at the top of their lungs and executing head-banging, boot camp-ready dance workouts created for them by choreographer Jen Oundjian, sixteen of Hollywood’s hottest young triple-threats dazzle throughout American Idiot’s nonstop ninety minutes.
So does directors Topher Rhys and Oundjian’s supremely imaginative, immersive use The Vortex’s expansive yet intimate industrial setting, resulting in an American Idiot with a power and intimacy it could never have in a Broadway theater or regional performing arts center.
In fact, so much is going on onstage at The Vortex, in its aisles, and everywhere in a 360-degree circumference that you may find yourself on sensory overload—and I mean this in the best of ways.
In the show’s biggest role, Byous’s Johnny radiates charisma and sex appeal, both dramatically and in songs that range from rock at its loudest to expressive ballads which have the up-and-coming singer-songwriter accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar.
Following star turns in glory|struck’s Spring Awakening and bare, Platt makes it three-for-three, commanding the stage as Tunny with his CW-ready looks and rock-star vocals, and he is matched by glory|struck first-timer Magnusson, every bit as striking and power-piped here as he was in Over The Moon Productions’ Spring Awakening and La Mirada’s Floyd Collins.
Rising star Pearce is sensational as the drugged-out, hot-messy Whatsername, a 180-degree turn from Spring Awakening’s virginal Wendla and bare’s mean girl Ivy, and sensational too are Gisselle (an oh-so seductive Extraordinary Girl) and The Voice’s Cuoco (a vocal standout as Heather).
As for ensemble members Jordan Booker, Barrett Crake, Casey Hayden, Abraham Lim, Reesa Marie, Michelle Raitzin, dance captain Shelley Regner. Jenna Townsend, and dance captain Zach Zagoria, the men could easily grace the covers of either GQ or Men’s Fitness and the women could do the same on Glamour or Shape. However, stunning good looks are just the start for these nine breathtaking triple-threats, who scarcely stop singing, dancing, and sweating up a storm throughout the show. (Perspiration has rarely looked so sexy.)
Individual kudos are due Glee Project’s Lim for “Favorite Son,” Hayden and The Voice’s Raitzin for “Too Much Too Soon,” Booker, Regner, and Lim for “Before The Labotomy,” Hayden and Eternity: The Movie star Crake for “East 12th Street,” and Zagoria for “Rock and Roll Girlfriend.”
Alec Cyganowski and Payson Lewis alternate with Byous and Platt in the roles of Johnny and Tunny.
Music director Elmo Zapp returns from his previous glory|struck gigs to conduct the production’s rock-concert-ready five-piece onstage band made up of Zapp, Austin Farmer, associate music director Alex Seller, Max Wagner, and letter-perfect last-minute addition Dan Scoville.
Scenic designer Sheiva Khalily merits highest marks for transforming a downtown warehouse into just the right setting to bring American Idiot to gritty, grungy urban life. Brandon Baruch’s spectacular lighting design is as Vegas-ready as it gets. Sound designer Jon King insures that lyrics actually get understood over the band (despite a few mike glitches at the performance reviewed). Costumes are uncredited, but they are terrific too.
Additional program mention goes, and deservedly so, to associate choreographers Dominic Matas and Erik Hall, associate lighting designer Sammy Ross, and sound engineer Leo Delgado
Juliana Scott is production stage manager.
American Idiot is presented by Topher Rhys, Jamie Lee Barnard, Juliana Scott, and glory|struck productions, and launches a social action campaign to generate awareness for the non-profits TO WRITE LOVE ON HER ARMS and HOMEFRONT RISING,
Alissa Norby and Stephanie Lazard are co-producers. Mark Heidel, Nicci Claspell, Jim Butler, Tami Butler, Stephen Michael Brown, and Mith Niles are associate producers.
Smash hits like Spring Awakening In Concert and bare a rock musical are tough acts to follow, but follow them glory|struck productions has done to stunning effect with Green Day’s American Idiot. You’d be an idiot to miss it.
The Vortex, 2341 East Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles.
May 16, 2015
Photos: Marion Pugliese