Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical is based on Green Day's 2004 punk rock album of the same name, which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It portrayed the angst filled uncertainty of a post-9/11 world that was in the crosshairs of war and an environment that was both media hijacked and politically focused. The album clearly struck a chord in how it spoke directly to the disenfranchised and disillusioned youth of America who found themselves facing an uncertain future at that time.
The small Spotlight space works exceptionally well to provide an intimacy for this story of three frustrated and young best friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, who all take different paths on their road to self-discovery. Through the lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong of some of Green Day's biggest hits, including "Holiday," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "21 Guns," and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," the words perfectly speak the voices of these men, portraying their thoughts and feelings as they face the mundane issues of everyday life and the disillusionment, anger and confusion the post 9/11 haze created.
While the score is phenomenal, there are a few issues with the book, some of which Spotlight is able to smooth over. The plot is fairly simple: Johnny chooses drugs as his escape from suburbia while Tunny finds himself drawn to the military and Will discovers that his life's journey has already been chosen for him. There is very little dialogue in Michael Meyer's book, which is a drawback in a few moments when words could help establish a clearer setting or a character's motivation. There is also the issue of the character of St. Jimmy who is the catalyst for many of Johnny's actions. The fact that St. Jimmy is Johnny's drug-dealing alter ego will be lost on many people in the audience. Also, the show's ending is somewhat anti-climactica quiet resolution after a pulse pounding, non-stop journey. Fortunately, director Bobby Sample, with contributions from choreographer Lynzee 4Man, helps clarify some of the confusion with St. Jimmy and a few other muddled parts with the use of a screen to introduce St. Jimmy as Johnny's shadow and a nifty way to show how Johnny frees himself from the draw into the quick high that drugs and desperation in the form of St. Jimmy provide.
The youthful cast adds an appropriate level of innocence and believability to the show's large group of characters without any added hints of uncertainty, pretension or falseness. Sam Primack, Joey Grado, and Vincent Pugliese are Johnny, Tunny, and Will. The characters they portray are all slightly older than this trio is in real life, and it is exciting to see these gifted young actors achieve such inspiring results as characters who are all forced into adulthood. The expressive looks and acting choices these three teens deliver is as effective as their soaring vocals. Both Primack and Pugliese use superb facial gestures to portray the vulnerability and sense of lost dreams of their characters. In Primack's case these expressions are outbursts, yet are worn as a badge of dishonor showing Johnny's resolution in a world where he discovers he doesn't belong, so his response is a constant "fuck you." Pugliese's glazed over and vacant stoner eyes are more introspective and painfully show how Will has no clue what to do when he sees his dreams pulled out from under him. Grado expertly portrays how the draw of the military holds influence on Tunny, as he marches off to battle then struggles to heal from the ramifications of war. These three teens also show off their guitar playing skills several times throughout the show.
Spencer Claus explodes on the scene as the controlling and seductive St. Jimmy with an intensity full of raw emotion. His deep singing voice adds another level to this crowd-pleasing character. As Whatsername, the woman Johnny is drawn to, Sarah Pansing provides an appropriate vulnerability beneath her rough exterior and a powerful voice to match. Jasmine Bassham and Ava Tyson are quite good as the two women in Will and Tunny's lives, and the entire cast is full of energy, forming a close knit community.
Sample and Mike Armstrong created a set design that is exceptionally creative in its functionality, with the use of cut-out sections on a lower level that quickly pull out to reveal furniture and other set elements to move this quick-moving show along with ease. The combination of Samantha Essary Utpadel's perfect millennium-focused costumes with Trey DeGroodt's punk-influenced hair and make-up designs, which includes some great tattoos, helps add a few years to age of the teenage cast. The clarity of the SYT sound system makes every lyric resonate, which is something I didn't get when seeing this show before, including on Broadway. The rich, full sound that music director Mark 4man draws from the cast along with Adam Berger's expert conducting of the smoking band achieve superb results.
With the uncertainty that is upon us with a Trump presidency we are living in a world with just as much angst and confusion as the characters of American Idiot felt after 9/11. With clear and concise direction and a sublime cast, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production helps resolve some of the shortcomings I have with the book and results in an energetic, powerful and a raw, emotional experience.
Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of American Idiot runs through January 29th, 2017, with performances at 10620 N 43rd Avenue in Glendale. Tickets and information can be found at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or by calling 602.843.8318
Director: Bobby Sample