Congratulations to The Hypocrites for unleashing the angry, reckless and relentless energy of "American Idiot."
The show, playing at the Den Theatre through Oct. 25, is freed from Broadway musical conventions and, --like "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"-- feels much more like a punk rock concert with a heavy dose of theatrics thrown in than a Broadway musical.
The book of the show is still problematic, though. Johnny (Luke Linsteadt) is a punk rock rebel without a cause. He wiles away his teenage years in the parking lot of a suburban convenience store, dreaming of escape. He's joined by mates Tunny (Steve Perkins) and Will (Jay W. Cullen) who share the common dream of leaving their hometown.
Johnny and Tunny soon head out to the big city. The pot and booze-drinking Will gets left behind when he gets his girlfriend Heather (Alex Madda) pregnant. Tunny heads off to war. Johnny fails to make it as a musician, falls in love with a fellow punk rock girl (the stunning Krystal Worrell as Whatshername) and then is seduced into a life of drugs by drug pusher named St. Jimmy (transgendered actor Malic White; fierce and unapologetically bad ass in the most awesome way).
And therein lies the crux of the piece: for all their sense that they are unique individuals, their lives ultimately end up being rather cliché-driven. Linsteadt's character plunges into drug addiction and managers to shake it in the course of a scene without very much of a struggle. Cullen's Will is too quick to wallow in alcoholism and self-pity. Perkins' Tunny is too easily seduced by the military. This is a cautionary tale; all three live up to the name "American Idiot" and none are the type of protagonist you really root for as a result.
Thankfully, the female cast are given their due here. Becca Brown, as Tunny's former bandmate and love "Extraordinary Girl," welcomes the injured soldier home with open arms (and, I might add, plays a mean bass guitar). Madda's Heather (accompanied by a female ensemble of friends) eventually has enough of Will's crap and leaves him. Later, Whatshername has an equally empowering "come to Jesus" moment when she realizes Johnny has chosen drugs over her ("Letterbomb").
The cast is diverse and certainly talented. Steven Wilson's direction captures the alienation of youth, but the show is missing the noise of social media and the propaganda of the corporate-owned 24-hour news channels that is as much a character of the show as our trio of friends. Also missing is any reference to the generation-defining moment that was 9/11. Wilson is vying for a more timeless take on the material, but the 9/11 reference was the one thing I felt the Broadway production (and subsequent tour) actually did right. In previous productions, the act is what shakes Johnny out of his heroin-induced stupor. Without it, Johnny's path to sobriety is a little bit harder to see.
Katie Spelman's choreography is more understated than on Broadway (less jumping, more defined movement and thusly has a more professional impact). Joe Schermoly's set certainly feels like some of the dingy music venues I frequented in my youth. Lighting by Heather Gilbert succeeds in setting time and mood (a spotlight during "Whatshername" is particularly effective). Mieka van der Ploeg's costume designs -a palate of primarily red, white and black-also fit the tone of the piece quite well.
The piece feels empty without "Good Riddence," though. The song, traditionally sung as a curtain call, really needs to be licensed with the show. Its lyric succinctly sums up the point that life is not about the destination, but rather the journey: "It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right. I hope you had the time of your life." Should we fail to grasp this concept, we've earned the title of "American Idiot." Without it, the show just doesn't seem to resonnate the way it should.
Despite the production's faults, this is perhaps the most "punk" version of the show we will ever see. Fans of Green Day will find it a fitting tribute to the band's alternative roots.
The Hypocrites' production of AMERICAN IDIOT runs through Oct. 25 at the Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee. Tickets $28-$35. www.the-hypocrites.com
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