shake & stir and QPAC
February 25 – March 12 2017
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
DO YOU HAVE TIME TO LISTEN TO ME WHINE?
THIS IS THE DAWNING OF THE REST OF OUR LIVES.
In fact, this is the dawning of a whole new age of Aquarius; the new moon in Pisces during the opening week and an auspicious year one, in the first of a cycle of nine. This means we were already craving change; something new, something edgy, something to make us sit bolt upright and inspire us to sow some seeds for the future. We don’t have to be a part of the 24/7 news cycle to appreciate that in the current political climate, much of American Idiot rings as true as it did when the concept album went straight to the top of the Billboard charts in 2004, and when the show smashed onto the Broadway scene in 2009.
The Age of Aquarius is about acknowledging the system is broken…and not waiting for someone else to fix it.
Green Day’s American Idiot is a new kind of music theatre experience, and unlike the string of political and social rock musicals with which we’ve grown up (West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal), which all have super strong stories, incredibly, this show rides on only the flimsiest excuse for a book (by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, also the show’s original director). In fact, the entire story is probably just the album description. (It’s not, I checked). More like Lloyd Webber’s Superstar in form, also groundbreaking in its time, American Idiot even has a Christ-like figure (or two, if we count the alter ego angel/devil dealer St Jimmy), Johnny, Jesus of Suburbia, whose story is told over the course of the song of the same name.
American Idiot relies on its punk rock pop and acoustic sound, its grungy rebel aesthetic and the star power brought to the stage by creators, Green Day, and the contemporary artists who star in it, in this case, The Living End’s Chris Cheney until February 26 and then Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson.
Michael Mayer told the New York Times in April 2010, “My idea all along was to keep the 13 songs in their original order and to interrupt it at times with other Green Day songs and the sparest of dialogue, because I didn’t want to have any extraneous words”. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
The Australian premiere company is sensational, bringing big voices and rampant energy to QPAC’s Playhouse stage. The look and feel is fantastic, chaotic. It’s shake & stir’s first foray into this more expansive space and with a bold creative team, led by Director, Craig Ilot, to create the terrifying world of an idiotic America, they’re a welcome fit. A massive departure from their previous offerings, although with the same rock star energy and attitude we see applied to the schools’ touring company, this is not the usual shake & stir show. It’s inspired programming, perfect timing, and set to shift the gaze from shake & stir as a tight knit team of contemporaries, to MainStage presenters with a bolder mission to reach newer audiences still, and prove massive success at the box office while other companies continue to, by choice or necessity, play small.
Josh McIntosh’s set design, utilising scaffolding and stairs, a hidden bed and eight enormous in-built television screens, provides the perfect anarchic playground for the cast of angry characters and also, for optikal bloc’s vivid AV design, which includes a barrage of chaotic images and lyrics – we get a taste of what’s to come in the opening minutes with the 24-hour news cycle popping up, as it does if we let it, on each screen – and a clever representation of that sacred ground, 7-Eleven. Matthew Marshall’s rock concert lighting states offer exactly the right mix of chaos and abandon, although we are blinded frequently and for some sensitive types this will not be a happy memory of the show. Lucas Newland’s choreography is edgy and angsty, sharply conceived and executed. Melanie Knight’s costumes capture a perfectly punk style, incorporating leather, tartan, torn denim, black hosiery and boots. It’s actually refreshing to see army fatigues, and Dirty Dancing’s Kurt Phelan cutting a fine figure in an officer’s uniform, despite the negative connotations of war at this point (at any point) in the not-quite-a-narrative. The look and feel and gritty sound will attract a whole new generation of theatregoers, but at the same time another set may well stay away. And that’s entertainment. At the first show on opening night – I can only assume the oldies and those having to travel from farther afield because we’ve never built our Instagram numbers to 10K and struck a deal with any of the nearby accomodation options (I’m counting myself in the latter category), were invited to the early show – the sound was muddy and the band overbearing. I thought it might be a punk thing? But no, and it will have been rectified by now. Under the musical direction of music industry stalwart Glenn Moorhouse (also on guitar), the on-stage band could easily sell a national tour without the rest of the show happening around them. These are some freakishly talented, dynamic performers.
Ben Bennett, in his professional stage debut, leads a uniformly excellent cast, as a convincing Johnny, Jesus of Suburbia, styled to look alarmingly like Billie Joe Armstrong (the original Broadway Johnny). The Living End’s charismatic Chris Cheney gives St Jimmy a wicked Machiavellian grin and legit Green Day frontman movements like a snake, making it easy for us to believe in the simple allure of spending hard won cash on the drugs he magically procures from his pocket. Bringing the hyperactivity down a notch, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends capture the melancholy that underpins the show’s inherent angst.
Rowena Vilar’s dream sequence aerial is accomplished and delightful to watch while we question what the hell is it doing in there? We can forgive this very poor excuse to throw in a super sexy number because she’s mesmerising. Likewise, Strictly Ballroom’s Phoebe Panaretos (Whatshername) and Ashleigh Barlow (Heather, the only female character granted an actual name), do their best with embarrassingly underwritten roles that continue to perpetuate the myths of (Vilar) the sexy nurse/slave to men, (Panaretos) the girlfriend/good fuck/slave to men and (Barlow) the doting mother and desperate wife/slave to men. Definitely a theme there. While there are some shoddy attempts to lift these women out of their boxes, even when Heather ups and leaves the hopeless, useless Will (a stereotypical sofa slob, played by Alex Jeans, a performer who could do so much more given half a chance), it’s at the insistence of a friend. Likewise, Cameron MacDonald does what he can with the role of Tunny, similarly thinly veiled as representative of a vast section of the population (because we all dream of that extraordinary girl in dazzling white and crystal embellishments performing aerial acts for our viewing pleasure during a stint in hospital).
In case we haven’t felt affected along the way (or in case we’ve felt more affected than we had expected to), the show closes with an overly sincere and unnecessarily sentimental, full company acoustic rendition of Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), which would have been better left as the play out music. It undoes much of the hard work, apologising in a way that feels very Robin Goodfellow, too earnestly hoping we can all still be friends by the end! But that’s okay because otherwise, of course we might leave and kick over a trash can, or shout impatiently at somebody waiting for their Uber. As it turns out, we have a delightful conversation for the next hour while one of the friends is waiting for her Uber, so perhaps it is, after all, the perfect note on which to end.