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Theatre Review: Shadowbox Live’s American Idiot Expectantly Excels with the Music

Lisa Much Lisa Much Theatre Review: Shadowbox Live’s American Idiot Expectantly Excels with the MusicShadowbox Live has performances of Green Day's American Idiot through April 26. Nikki Fagin as Whatsername, JT Walker III as Johnny and Andy Ankrom as St. Jimmy. Photo courtesy Shadowbox Live.
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After waiting years for the rights and enduring much anticipation from their patrons (and the general public too, since I saw more Shadowbox virgins last night than any other time I have visited), Shadowbox Live opened the regional premiere of Green Day’s Tony Award winning musical American Idiot.

Green Day began as part of the punk scene in the late eighties in the Bay Area and reached break-out success with their 1994 album Dookie. They found international acclaim throughout the nineties, with many punk fans accusing them of “selling out” particularly with the 1997 release of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” After a decline in popularity in the late nineties, the band took a sabbatical to write and record their self-described best work. Finding inspiration from The Who’s Tommy, Green Day released American Idiot, a politically-charged rock opera album, in September 2004. In 2010, American Idiot appeared on stage, first in the Bay Area then New York.

Anita McFarren as Heather, Jamie Barrow as Will in Shadowbox Live's production of Green Day's American Idiot. Photo courtesy Shadowbox Live.

Anita McFarren as Heather, Jamie Barrow as Will in Shadowbox Live’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot. Photo courtesy Shadowbox Live.

The show follows the story of three young men who grew up in generic Suburbia: Johnny (the Jesus of Suburbia), Will, and Tunny. Fed up with life in their town, the three plan to escape to the city, but right before leaving Will finds out his girlfriend, Heather, is pregnant. He stays home with her. Despite this, Johnny and Tunny hop a bus to join the revolution and excitement of city life. Unable to cope with the adjustment, Tunny joins the military and is deployed. Alone and frustrated, Johnny searches for friends, girls, and ultimately purpose.

Johnny, played a bit too angrily by JT Walker III, gets lost in the world of New York City until he meets a lady, Whatsername, and St. Jimmy, the devilish dude that nonchalantly permeates every aspect of Johnny’s life. Nikki Fagin plays an interesting and very caring Whatsername, though almost maternal in her relationship to the overly childish portrayal of Johnny. Andy Ankrom’s St. Jimmy also feels a bit overly immature, as though both he and Johnny live in a state of fluctuating under-development. They seem almost dependent on one another, as though each silently completes the other to create a whole human. It kind of feels like the performers struggle a bit with the characters. Angsty teen does not really fall within typical Shadowbox fare but, hopefully, they fall further into these roles as the run progresses.

As announced at the top of the show, Shadowbox Live wanted to produce American Idiot for the music, and the company expectantly excels at this. Stand out numbers include “Holiday” with its industrial, dance-driven, makeshift bus and the chilling “21 Guns.” Nikki Fagin stretches herself with the plot-turning “Letterbomb,” to dazzling effect. Kudos to Matthew Hahn, Stacie Boord, and Katy Psenicka for their respective music and vocal guidance and energetic choreography. The band: Matthew Hahn, Brent Lambert, Jeff “Buzz” Crisafulli, Kevin Patrick Sweeney, and Brandon “Dreds” Smith, as always, sound great and add a cute touch by emulating Billie Joe Armstrong in dress.

This production features some fine moments, most memorably the powerful image as the music shifts from “Favorite Son” to “Are we the Waiting.” The illumination of David Whitehouse’s fitting projections brilliantly backlights Tunny (nicely played by Brandon Anderson) as he faces the crowd and his destiny in the desert. American Idiot contains some more versatile blocking choices than previous shows at Shadowbox as well as pulsing punk-rock music, which makes this a fun show.

Overall, though, this production feels a bit awkward and transitory which might be okay. I do question if this production focuses too much on performing the music, and not the punk, anti-political, “F-everything” thoughts that these characters Green Day (for far too long) envelop.

There exists a constant complaint about this show that I’ve heard or read over the years. The characters and plot both lack strong development, which is totally true. However, I might wager that it does not matter as much for this story. Few, if any, people develop fully as characters during their late teens and early twenties. The story of American Idiot centers on just that—finding purpose in life, friends, relationships, drugs, work, children, or a location. It’s about figuring out who you are and what you care about, the very thing people most earnestly work on during those years of their life, when idealism (or nihilism), emotion, and confusion still rule them. These characters deal with depression and struggle to find purpose in a loud and sometimes pointless world that, even when many things happen—hell—life turning events that can greatly affect a person, little visibly changes, as sometimes occurs in real life.

American Idiot plays through April 26 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front Street and plays select Wed.-Thurs. at 7:30 pm; Sun. at 2 and 7 pm. Ticket are $20-$25. Columbus Underground readers can save $10 off their tickets with code CU10. More information can be found online at ShadowboxLive.org.

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