Lakewood Playhouse doubles down with ‘Idiot’ gamble

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Lakewood Playhouse’s production of “American Idiot” is a high energy and angst-filled production that drives home the feelings of modern audiences. Photo by Tim Johnston

Lakewood Playhouse first placed a strategic bet by staging its branded “Outside the Box” musical in 2016 when it staged “Avenue Q” and then tackled “The Rocky Horror Show” last year. The theater’s idea was to stop playing it safe by just staging shows from the predictable “golden age of musicals,” and introduce audiences to modern, edgier works. The 2016 and 2017 gambles were artistic and financial successes, suggesting audience were willing to follow where the theater wanted to lead them along their walking tour of the dramatic arts. The theater’s current production of “American Idiot,” directed by John Munn, turns that walk into a jog if not an all-out dash. It gets hearts racing, minds spinning, eyes dancing and palms sweating with nervous energy.

It was well worth the workout.

“American Idiot” is a rock opera based on the music by the punk band Green Day that explores the drug-laden, vagabond life of three friends who face their own ways in life on their own terms in a post-Sept. 11, 2001 world. It’s basically the current generation’s “Rent,” albeit already a decade old.

It is not your grandmother’s “Oklahoma” or “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but that’s the point. Musical theater doesn’t have to be all cheers and marital kisses right before the final curtain falls. Life doesn’t always work out. Real people are flawed. They make bad decisions. They punish their bodies through drugs and neglect. Modern musicals like “Idiot” reflect that fact in a gritty, profanity-filled, fully amped way that just wouldn’t fit in the world of Stephen Sondheim, or Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. Sure, they created great works. “American Idiot” builds on their foundations, after all, to create a modern theatrical universe for today’s younger audiences, just as “Hamilton” tells the story of the founding of the nation through hip hop.

Told largely through the stream of consciousness journaling of Johnny (played by Mark Alford), “Idiot” thunders with rage, doubt, anti-society angst and artistic expression against the demands of conformity — black studded jacket and all. But the play is only complete with the folding in of the my-life-is-crap story of Will (Cooper Harris-Turner) and Tunny’s (Tony Williams) evolution from rootless slacker to wounded soldier. The trifecta of life stories told through these three creates a well-crafted and deeply unsettling view of modern living that is all too real for many people. Their flip-off-the-world performances were complex and nuanced, which requires audiences to dig into their own lives to the point where the audience can easily see themselves as members of the cast.

Those audience members would be in good company, with characters ranging from the evil-incarnate drug pusher portrayed by Shannon Burch to the lost girl next door of Dani Hobbs. But they would also have to master the wonderous energy-over-precision choreography by Ashley Roy set to the musical direction of Deborah Lynn Armstrong. Armstrong does a particularly solid job at bringing the vibe of a rock concert via an onstage band while allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. Those powerful lyrics were further aided by the fact that all the actors wore microphones that worked superbly, so not a word was lost thanks also to the sound work of Aaron Mohs-Hale. The world of “Idiot” is complete with the costume selections of Diane Runkel and the “mood gymnastics” lighting Kate Wilson created.

“American Idiot” runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays through Jan. 28. There will also be a pay-what-you-can-night at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18. General tickets are $30, or $28 for military and seniors and $25 for students and teachers. Lakewood Playhouse is located at the Lakewood Towne Center, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. Contact the theater at (253) 588-0042 or visit lakewoodplayhouse.com for more information.

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