"Oh, it's the same 15 plays, repackaged every five years."
"Where are the cutting edge shows that younger people will want to see?"
"How many times can you see "Oliver?"
Defenders and supporters of live community theater will recognize these statements and queries. On the heels of them comes the cry that the dominant hair color of the local theater patron is gray, white, or blue. To be honest, there is some truth to all of this. Local South Sound theaters tend toward the tried and true because it makes sense and provides a stable income, driven by comfortable patrons used to seeing comfortable shows. Hoo Boy!! The complainants had better be prepared to hold their fire, for at least the rest of January.
Lakewood Playhouse is tipping the local theater world on its head and is pouring out its collective sensibilities and expectations. Green Day's "American Idiot" opened this weekend and is at Lakewood's favorite theater through January 28, and the likes of this show will not be soon seen again! Friday and Saturday evening shows begin at 8 p.m. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Start times are the only conventional part of this production.
What is the history of this show? Well, it was first produced on Broadway just nine years ago and opened officially on April 20, 2010. It ran 422 times on The Great White Way and has since traveled the world. Interestingly enough, Green Day, as a group, never appeared in the Broadway production, though vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong occasionally performed the role of St. Jimmy. That is only appropriate as Armstrong wrote the book and lyrics.
Directed by Lakewood Playhouse Managing Artistic Director John Munn, "American Idiot" is the story of three disaffected youth whose emotional knobs are set at full-on anger. Why are they so mad? At whom is their laser light of fury aimed? Is there any hope for them? Would a hug and a puppy help? These are the questions the audience is driven to ask through a haze of pounding music and powerful performances throughout Lakewood Playhouse's production.
The show is an ensemble piece, but Mark Alford, in the role of Johnny, sets the emotional tone and drives the story through angsty excerpts from his journal. Alford has an adequate voice, but vocal accuracy isn't terribly important in the role. Power and rage! That's what Johnny is all about, and Mr. Alford plays him with enough lip curl to rival Billy Idol at his White Wedding. Alford's large and liquid eyes express pain dished out by the ladle-full. His performance is excellent.
The role of Will is interpreted by Cooper Harris-Turner. Will mistakenly believes that everyone else's life is a circus, while his is a tale of elephant dung. His performance as one left behind, especially when played opposite Kiana Norman-Slack's Heather, is really well done! As for Ms. Norman-Slack, her role is smallish, but her impact on the show is great! She's the best of the female singers, imbuing each song with deep richness.
Local favorite Tony Williams continues an impressive run of shows at this theater, this time in the role of Tunny. Mr. Williams is one of the area's most-versatile performers having been Gary Coleman in "Avenue Q," Rocky in "Rocky Horror," and now Tunny in this show. Those were his LPH shows, as he has also been spotted on other local theaters, all in the last year. Tunny's plans to be shiftless and mad are derailed when called to the service of his country. How does he survive wartime? Does he survive wartime? Those are answers an empathetic audience wants to learn. Tony Williams is an easy actor for whom to root in this role. He's that good.
Green Day's Armstrong may have frequently played St. Jimmy on Broadway, but he didn't ooze malevolence any better than does Shannon Burch in this show. Her portrayal is one of evil intent, and it is more than effective. Juxtaposed against the sweeter (albeit still angry) Dani Hobbs as Whatshername Ms. Burch's seething fire only spits a brighter flame. Is St. Jimmy even real, or a figment of Johnny's fevered brain. One wonders up until the end when that question is pretty resoundingly answered. Kudos to Shannon Burch, as well as Dani Hobbs. Their performance together provided nuance to the show.
Ashley Roy serves as choreographer for "American Idiot," and her task is a difficult one. The cast is large, the stage is small, and the opportunity to provide smooth movement is limited. Nevertheless, Ms. Roy makes it all work out, as she always seems to do. Her own role, Extraordinary Girl, is one of the graceful dance moves. The difference between "able to dance" and "movement as passion" is obvious here. Ashley Roy is a rare one. Her future can be on-stage and/or as a crack choreographer destined for great things.
Does "American Idiot" work, or is it going to go down in history for its shock value alone? In other words, the cast swears like constipated dockworkers, but do they connect with the crowd? That can be answered with an audience anecdote. At one point in the show, a woman displays her anger at a guy with a double-shot of a middle finger in his face. It's a bird twofer! At least a half-dozen women in the crowd responded with "YEAH!" The audience for this show is a varied lot, and that's a good thing. The buttoned-up sit next to a leather jacket with spikes. Together they navigate this show in their own way, and this talented cast allows for that. Is "American Idiot" outside the box? Hell, yeah! Is that a good thing? Hell, yeah! Come for the acting, or come for the music, expertly directed by Deborah Lynn Armstrong. But, do come and support theater unlike any other show in this area this year. The cast will ask nicely...once. Then it is up to St. Jimmy to do the convincing.
Tickets for "American Idiot" can be purchased on the Lakewood Playhouse ticketing page, or by calling 253-588-0042. Parental discretion advised, and that is a tricky situation. The adult themes mean those younger than about 17 shouldn't come. However, the themes and emotions are ones mid-teens will recognize. No one said parental decisions would be easy.