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'American Idiot': Power chords fuel musical's powerful story at Kingsbury Hall

Published December 5, 2013 4:40 pm

Theater review • Powerful story doesn't get lost in high energy show.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's rock opera opus "American Idiot" is nearly 10 years old now, an almost-decade of music that is saturated in themes of teenage angst, substance abuse and frustration in a time of war.

In 2010, the album was reborn as a musical, which started a three-day stretch Tuesday night at Kingsbury Hall with frenetic and entertaining theatrics.

"American Idiot" explodes with energy from the very first song, the cast flying around the stage with wild abandon while belting out the album's title track. Screens on the set flash different signs of political propaganda while the cast, resembling residents of Skid Row hopped up on caffeine, yells lyrics dedicated to "idiot America."

The show is one of the most physically demanding on the road today, with incessant gyrating, jumping and singing. However, the cohesion and intent of the music is never lost in the action, resembling some kind of melodic chaos.

The story is based on the lives of Johnny, Tunny and Will as their lives start on divergent paths, Will getting caught up in an unplanned pregnancy, Johnny chasing his dreams of glory in the big city and Tunny enlisting in the military.

Johnny, deemed the "Jesus of suburbia", is the main focus of the show, and lead Jared Nepute was more than capable of filling Armstrong's vision, bringing the underachieving, foul-mouthed character to life. Nepute's brightest moments were when he was standing solo on stage, draped with a guitar and playing deeply personal tracks like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends," an ode to the passing of Armstrong's father.

Will is left mostly in the shadows for the entire show, wasting away on a couch on the left of the stage, smoking and drinking to deal with a child and life he's clearly not ready for. However, Casey O'Farrell, who plays Will, had an eerily beautiful voice and nailed his vocal performance on "Give Me Novacaine."

Tunny's character shoulders the burden of Armstrong's frustrations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as he is whisked off like a robot during "Are We The Waiting?" as he is persuaded to enlist. Dan Tracy does a fantastic job on stage as he's stripped down to his skivies, following other cast members off stage in lock step, a symbol for Armstrong's idea of sacrificing personal identity for the "greater good" of the military. Tracy also had one of the funniest parts of the show, yelling out, "Tell the bishop a resistance is occurring," during "Jesus of Suburbia," an obvious and clever nod to the Mormon religion.

The show grows organically from the surrounding set, using scaffolding as a "bus" when Johnny and Tunny travel into the city and using a couch and a bed as channels to deliver concepts of wasted youth and a dirty environment.

"American Idiot" also features a live band playing the sheet music throughout the show, a rare treat of amplified power chords rather than a traditional musical orchestra.

Lesser characters like Will's baby's mother, Heather, played by Mariah MacFarlane and St. Jimmy, played by Daniel C. Jackson were pleasant surprises throughout the show. MacFarlane had a booming voice with matching crisp choreography during her separation from Will in "Too Much Too Soon" and Jackson was a perfect grimy "Dr. Feelgood," enticing the neighborhood kids with hard drugs and driving Johnny off-track as he tried to make something of himself.

However, the true shining character was Olivia Puckett, who played Johnny's love interest, Whatsername. Puckett and Nepute's chemistry was electric throughout the show.

Puckett also provided the backbone of the most important song in the show, "21 Guns," and led the way as the rest of the cast harmonized behind her. Her vocals were crystal clear and set the tone of the climax of the show as each of the three main characters came to terms with their choices and more importantly, the consequences of those choices.

Although the album and musical were rooted in energy and excitement, those kinds of performances were what solidified the music as art. The softer and more intimate moments perfectly juxtaposed with the driving, punchy tracks to create a well-rounded experience from beginning to end. —

American Idiot

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.

When • Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets • $42, $52 and $64.50 (plus handling and facility fees); two $15 student tickets available for every show; 801-581-7100 or kingtix.com.