Ben Bennett as Johnny and Sarah McLeod as St Jimmy in the shake & stir and QPAC co-production of , which is playing at QPAC’s Playhouse until April 21. Picture: David Fell
Ben Bennett as Johnny and Sarah McLeod as St Jimmy in the shake & stir and QPAC co-production of , which is playing at QPAC’s Playhouse until April 21. Picture: David Fell

American Idiot: It’s part theatre, part rock concert

FROM the moment the "f--- you, I won't do what you tell me" refrain of Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name starts emanating from the speakers in the Playhouse bar before the show, it's clear this isn't going to be an ordinary night at QPAC.

Indeed, the song provides a good indicator of what we're about to witness when we take our seats - an edgy, rock-based musical with an anti-authoritarian streak filled with anthemic choruses and f-bombs.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, which itself was based on US punk band Green Day's Grammy-winning 2004 album, this shake & stir theatre and QPAC co-production returns to Brisbane - where it was launched in February last year - after a triumphant run Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.

Originally set in the post-9/11 era during George W Bush's presidency, this production has been updated to reflect Donald Trump's election to the top job.

As video of Trump and snippets of cable news feeds gradually fill TV screens behind the stage and merge into a cacophony, the cast launches into a gloriously choreographed, live-band backed rendition of the title track.

Soon after, we're introduced to Johnny - played by Ben Bennett, originally from Townsville - and his two cohorts Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans). The trio - who come across like a less-sinister version of Alex and his "droogs" from A Clockwork Orange - are jaded with their go-nowhere lives in Jingletown, a small middle-American slice of suburbia, and resolve to leave in search of brighter lights and bigger cities.

Ben Bennett, as central character Johnny, takes centre stage during Jesus of Suburbia in American Idiot, at QPAC’s Playhouse. Picture: David Fell
Ben Bennett, as central character Johnny, takes centre stage during Jesus of Suburbia in American Idiot, at QPAC’s Playhouse. Picture: David Fell

Throughout the course of the multi-part Jesus of Suburbia and Tales of Another Broken Home, we get a short summation of the central characters' lives - which largely consist of being sedentary in their lounge rooms and loitering around the local 7-Eleven - and by song's end, we learn that Will won't be joining his mates on their journey after his girlfriend Heather (Ashleigh Taylor) discovers she is pregnant.

Johnny and Tunny's move to a metropolis doesn't quite live up to preconceived notions either, with Tunny opting to join the military after becoming seduced by the propaganda machine, in one of the production's standout scenes, and Johnny's precarious mental state unravelling in tandem with his social isolation.

The character of St Jimmy - played by Superjesus frontwoman Sarah McLeod on opening night - appears as Johnny descends into madness and moral turpitude, like the proverbial devil-on-the-shoulder, steering him down a path of debauchery.

Along the way, Johnny meets Whatsername - brilliantly executed by Phoebe Panaretos in the role that earned her a Helpmann nomination last year - while Tunny learns first-hand the follies of war and embittered new father Will bemoans what could have been as he lives vicariously through what he imagines to be Johnny's comparatively utopian existence.

With the exception of a monologue that sets the scene and introduces the characters, and a few bridging "letters to home" that Johnny reads aloud, the narrative is explained through the music, and shake & stir have done an admirable job of communicating the sometimes convoluted plot points with impressively integrated multimedia displays.

McLeod's entrance is accompanied by huge cheers from the audience, and she clearly relishes her time in the spotlight, playing the role with an eye-darting intensity that comes across like the bastard love child of Johnny Rotten and Beetlejuice.

Having a high-profile rocker playing St Jimmy - Grinspoon's Phil Jamieson takes up the role for the remainder of the Brisbane season - certainly adds gravitas, and McLeod steals the scenes she's in, with her powerhouse vocals on St Jimmy and Know Your Enemy a particular highlight.

Members of the ensemble cast of American Idiot perform at QPAC’s Playhouse in Brisbane. Picture: David Fell
Members of the ensemble cast of American Idiot perform at QPAC’s Playhouse in Brisbane. Picture: David Fell

There isn't a weak link in the ensemble cast - which includes 15 players in total - but special mention must go to NIDA-trained Christopher Scalzo, who manages to stand out from the pack, even in the larger set pieces.

American Idiot certainly won't be to everyone's tastes - it's loud, bombastic and by its very nature, the narrative is sometimes threadbare and the characters' motivations can be difficult to grasp - but its intention is to straddle the line between musical theatre and a rock 'n' roll show and on it succeeds in doing just that.

While the show is not without its shortcomings, many of these are more the fault of the requirement to adhere to the rigid source material. American Idiot is like a 90-minute, live-action music video, a concept some traditional theatregoers may well abhor, but the target audience welcomed the familiar songbook and well-executed performances with enthusiastic vigour.

In much the same way as Green Day's music has a propensity to encourage listeners to open the door to more subversive, left-of-centre music, American Idiot will hopefully open the eyes and ears of many of its audience to the perhaps unfamiliar world of stage shows and musical theatre.

American Idiot plays QPAC's Playhouse through Saturday. 


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