American Idiot at Keegan Theater : A Review

(L to R) Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, Josh Sticklin (Courtesy of Keegan Theater)
(L to R) Hasani Allen, Harrison Smith, Josh Sticklin (Courtesy of Keegan Theater)

By Ryan Rutledge

“We often marveled (or cursed) at how Green Day and their collaborators seemed to be giving a collective middle finger to the structures of theater with which most of us are comfortable” – Susan Marie Rhea & Mark A. Rhea, Directors

The newly renovated Andrew Keegan Theatre is a local Dupont treasure. One is first struck by its remarkable modern design squeezed in-between the historic brick buildings of Dupont . The bright and warm lobby may seem at first cramped, but soon its brilliant economy of space becomes apparent. Keegan’s “box office” essentially consists of a tablet on a thin stand with a well-dressed man standing behind it, who offers what may be the most painless ticket exchange possible,directing guests to the optimal theater entrances and the lavish alcohol and concessions bar.

Stepping into the theater instantly opens up the atmosphere in an exciting way, with the stage and seating organized openly between the high brick and mortar walls. It gives the edgy feeling of a comedy cellar or an underground rock bar in an aesthetic that no doubt added to the brilliance of the company’s production of American Idiot, a production built from the ground-up on the suburban hardcore scene of the late nineties and early two-thousands.

Having said that, it is good news that the greatest strength of the show is undoubtedly its well-developed, yet tasteful punk rock aesthetic. The costume and makeup work in particular deserve praise for their part in avoiding the tragic pitfalls that usually befall a portrayal of punk culture; they avoided the thick leather outfits with absurd spike adornments for the more realistic suburban rebel’s uniform of flannel shirts and ripped jeans. The preferred hairstyles that remained were constrained to only that which a teenager could accomplish with the chemistry under the sink, in place of purple Mohawks or green, gravity defying fringes, while actually going full punky punk punk on the St. Jimmy character, who is the celebrated personification of heroin addiction.
Even more attractive however, were the nuances of punk culture which the show accomplishes. For starters, the stage is set with two levels, and behind the set pieces on the second level, the full band is visible, complete not only with the punk rock staples of electric guitar and drum set, but also classical string instruments which really punch the music into a full sound. Their position, high above the audience as opposed to a more typical pit arrangement, provides an essential part of the punk rock experience, the physical feeling of the drums pounding through the air and shaking the ground under the seats.

Even more vital, however, is the way the actors and actresses respond to the thump and crash, they’re angry and, more importantly to the punk-rock-feeling, they really want the audience to know they’re angry. Perhaps the most astonishing part of watching the performs move through their first three songs was the physical energy they put forth, and indeed there are times where it looks like those on stage are pushing through barriers of physical exhaustion, with the help of that punk rock anger. Other noticeable nods to the punk culture are in the choreography, like the imitation of a concert mosh or in the nod to extreme crowd-crush behaviors like the Wall of Death. This skateboarder’s-frustration is also sonically manifested through tight choreography, which has the characters thrashing on stage and beating set pieces with un-syncopated music. Indeed, the audience will often be jealous that they can’t also be banging as well.

It would be criminal not to discuss perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the show however, the actual song performance. Good news again! Casual Green Day fans won’t be disappointed by the crystal clean renditions, but for those who wore the original album out sometime back in 2005, the real treat is finding the intriguing and brilliant ways the theatrical adaptations freshen up the music (multiple times Harrison Smith, who plays the main protagonist Johnny, amends the singing of Billie Joe Armstrong to reach for some incredibly polished high notes that can cause shivers).

Lastly, the show is shored up by some truly solid acting. Memorable performances include the previously mentioned Harrison Smith, whose portrayal of The Jesus of Suburbia’s nihilism and eventual drug abuse were uncomfortably realistic, a feeling that is complimented by St. Jimmy, the Hero of Heroin, who is coyly portrayed by Christian Montgomery. CUA senior Hasani Allen also had frightening depiction of a teenage soldier desperately chasing after purpose and pride in the Army during the United States’ military operations in the Middle East.
The most memorable moments of the show however, were the ones that defined it as a performance that exists in the post-9/11 America, an American youth that is frustrated, aggravated, and scared. This culminates in the musical number “Wake Me up When September Ends”, which had left me speechless.

American Idiot is showing at Keegan at 8 pm every Wednesday through Saturday and 3 pm every Sunday till April 9th. Buy tickets at!

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