It’s odd how a show that came out as recently as 2010 can feel like a ‘decades’ piece, but Comtra Theatre’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot feels like it was ripped straight out of the early ‘aughts. Laden with songs from the quintessential early 2000s pop-punk track, American Idiot promises high-speed guitar, killer rock vocals, and an anti-establishment message, and Comtra’s production delivers on all fronts.
Entering the theatre was like walking back in time, walls covered in posters of the best of 2004’s pop-punk scene. All Time Low and Blink-182 blasted from speakers, and upon observing the young group of actors milling about the stage, interacting with the audience, I was faced with the iconography which fueled my desire to rebel throughout my elementary and middle school years. As I recall it now, I was entirely too young to listen to American Idiot when the original album was first released, and yet my parents thought it acceptable to buy an impressionable third grader an album including such lyrics as, “Sieg Heil to the president Gasman/Bombs away is your punishment/Pulverize the Eiffel towers/Who criticize your government”.
If you haven’t heard any of American Idiot, most of the tracks—which would become the main score of the musical—have a similar critique of, then W. Bush era, politics. Green Day’s lead singer, Billie Jo Armstrong, intended it to be a concept album, so the transition from a punk rock opera into a musical was never a far stretch.
The musical follows three young men who are fed up with the lies perpetrated in ‘the age of paranoia.’ Johnny, played by the delightfully twitchy Ryan Wagner, is our leader and the main source of the plot. He has the occasional monologue and lets us in on the lives of he and his horde of frustrated, horny young punks. Wagner is one of the strongest singers in the cast, as he soars high notes throughout the show. Tunny, played by Zakk Mannella, has a sweet tenor voice and grows to be the most thoughtful of the three. His fall from grace is heart-wrenching, and Mannella’s portrayal of Will is fantastically performed. Finally, Will, played by Luke Carter, is the first of the three to be hit with adolescent disillusionment. After he gets his girlfriend pregnant, he must choose between raging with his friends and this responsibility.
Each member was given a chance to share angst and some genuinely badass singing, such as Marian Puet in the role of Libby. She was a strong ensemble member, and a powerhouse when she belted in “Too Much, Too Soon.” Victoria Buchtan as Whatshername, Johnny’s dream girl, kicked some serious butt as well. Her vocals on “Letterbomb” blew a hole through the theatre’s roof as she tore Johnny to pieces.
Going into the production, I was informed that they had cut some of the dialogue to focus on the music at the heart of this piece. I didn’t mind the operetta feel; however, it makes me unsure if the lack of clarity in some moments of the show was the fault of these cuts or the show itself. For example, the opening—and title—song, while immaculately staged and performed, offered little information as to what was actually happening. I understood that the ensemble was frustrated with the state of America, and they raged beautifully, but as we moved through the show, they eventually hopped a bus to leave their old town and I didn’t really know how we got there or where they were in the first place. Perhaps this is merely a case of teenage hatred directed towards their hometown, and the ultimate relief explored in the form of packing up and getting out, but I needed a little more to understand the why and where. It felt just a bit nebulous.
The ideas explored in American Idiot have never been more relevant, though. The message broadcasted in this production was clear, and true to the album’s original intent. During “Holiday,” as the young punks lament the lies and corruption of America, one actor portrays a politician and delivers a pointed speech, spewing hatred and referencing Nazi terrorism like Kristallnacht, all while wearing a signature Trump MAGA hat. The symbolism, highlighted by Green Day’s lyrics, was evident, unforgiving, striking, and so needed. In this current administration with the hatred emboldened by it, making moves like this in theatre may seem like the most obvious connection—that the idiot back then was Bush, so the idiot now is Trump—but it is an act of rebellion and defiance each time we are reminded that what is happening in our own backyards in unacceptable. We can’t keep moving past the ever-mounting list of tragedy after tragedy and changing nothing; reminders like this shove that harsh reality in our faces.
This production was in no way devoid of meaning, and I appreciate how honest the direction was of co-directors Cody Larko and Christopher Arthur Strangfeld. I felt their efforts were shown in the choices of the actors, who had a considerable task of performing this high-octane show. Actors in ripped skinny jeans, plaid, black eyeliner, tattoos, and facial piercings jump around like mad in almost every song. Not only did they have to do an incredible amount of difficult singing, but the sheer volume of onstage work was intense. An exceptional part of this show was the quick turnaround of the characters. Many actors portrayed many people in our three main character’s lives, and at times the show felt like a costume play. There was a certain naïve joy derived from how the actors played with each other onstage, and I got a feeling of closeness from them. Though the closeness could be due to the nature of the piece, this was a strong ensemble of people who balanced one and other exquisitely. The ensemble head-bangs kicks and belts their faces off in this show.
Comtra’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot runs now through November 17th. For tickets and more information click here.
Rachelmae Pulliam is a recent Pitt grad who has been obsessed with the world of theatre since she saw the PBS recording of CATS in the 90s. She graduated with degrees in theatre arts and English writing with a focus on poetry; ask her about her chapbook, Full Stop. She’d love to get your feedback. When not writing for PITR, Rachelmae can be found onstage, behind the work desk of one of her jobs, lounging with her cats, or trying to get around to finishing that one painting. She loves theatre with her whole soul, and feels privileged to experience it in Pittsburgh, a city where she thinks people are emboldened to take risks, where you can always find something new.
Categories: Archived Reviews