Review: “American Idiot” at Phoenix Theatre

By Wendy Carson

From left, Matthew Lee, Spencer Curnett and Lincoln Slentz star as three best friends in
From left, Matthew Lee, Spencer Curnutt and Lincoln Slentz star as three best friends in “American Idiot,” through July 5 at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre. — Phoenix Theatre photo by Zach Rosing

In 2004, punk band Green Day released their celebrated concept album, “American Idiot.” The album’s lineup formed a story of teen angst in the new millennium. Upon hearing the record myself, I could see the threads of the story woven together in a complex narrative that seemed to lend perfectly to a full-fledged musical. Luckily for us all, Michael Mayer felt the same and Billie Jo Armstrong, the band’s lead singer, agreed. While many of the overall themes of the show hearken back to Mayer’s previous show, “Spring Awakening,” the story’s present-day setting makes it more accessible to the target Millennial audience. With Indiana’s current increase in heroin usage and the resulting HIV crisis, the show could not be more relevant and meaningful. Naturally, The Phoenix Theatre proudly brings this story to the Indy stage almost a year to the day after its Broadway run’s end.

The show’s story follows just under a year in the life of three slacker buddies (Johnny, Will, and Tunny). Their disillusionment with life in their suburban home town leads them to decide to take a bus to the big city and go experience all that life can provide. Sadly, Will is waylaid before he can even leave by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy so he is forced to remain behind and long for the adventures relayed by Johnny’s occasional postcards.

In the big city, Tunny is plagued by intense depression and is called to join the army in order to find himself. He eventually ends up a troubled, broken veteran who only survives with the love and devotion of an Extraordinary Girl.

Meanwhile, Johnny’s search for meaning leads him to the seductive world of drugs, courtesy of the charismatic St. Jimmy. During this time he meets the girl of his dreams and they share a fiery affair until she tries to wake Johnny from his drug-fueled haze. Things escalate quite quickly with him choosing the allure of St. Jimmy to the love of Whatsername.

Eventually, all three characters reunite in their little hometown to face the choices they’ve made and how they’ve changed as a result of them.

Directors Bryan Fonseca and Emily Ristine have rounded up an exceptional cast to bring this story to life, many of whom are veterans of the Phoenix’s 2011 production of “Spring Awakening.” Spencer Curnutt expertly brings all of Johnny’s angst and desperation to his performance. Lisa Ermel once again shows her amazing range in the ethereal role of Whatsername. Lydia Burke brings a poetic grace to her Extraordinary Girl. Matthew Lee and Carly Kincannon’s portrayal of Will and Heather expertly show the harsh reality of teenage parenthood. Eric J. Olson shows the dangerously enticing St. Jimmy and his world of drug-fueled oblivion as an easy answer to life’s stresses, yet never lets us forget its cost. Lincoln Slentz’s vulnerability as Tunny was only marred by his struggle to stay in tune on some of the songs. While the remaining five cast members are only listed as “Ensemble”, their ability to believably breathe life into the myriad of roles they are called on to assume makes each one stand out as a major talent.

While the harsh, grittiness of this show might make some apprehensive, the show’s message resounds so much with today’s youth that it should be a must-see for anyone over 15 if only to show them some of the harsh realities of the world and drug addiction in a format they will better respond to. I would best describe the show as this generation’s version of “Hair” (sans nudity but with mature language and a scene of simulated sex). See the show Thursdays through Sundays through July 5 at the Phoenix Theater, 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.), Indianapolis, but you should get your tickets soon, because they are selling quickly and you really don’t what to be an American Idiot by missing out.

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