Grab Your Chucks, Dark Nail Polish, and Disillusionment for Carnegie’s “American Idiot”

Review by Jack Crumley of “American Idiot”: Carnegie

I promise I’m going to do my best to not wax too philosophically in this review. For context, Green Day’s “American Idiot” album was released in September, 2004. It was released when I was fresh out of college, and America was fresh off the 9/11 terror attacks. It’s a collection of songs steeped in themes of jaded youth, distrust of authority, and the never ending battle against apathy. It’s one of those increasingly rare albums that is trying to tell a story: a modern, punk rock opera. It’s not “Tommy,” but it’s not just a collection of random singles, either. I listened to “American Idiot” a lot.

The Carnegie in Covington is kicking off the 2019 season with “American Idiot”, which opened on Broadway in 2010 and was nominated for Tony’s Best Musical and won Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. It also won a Grammy in 2011 for Best Musical Show Album. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong co-wrote the book with Michael Mayer.

One of the most interesting parts of “American Idiot” American Idiot is how specifically rooted it is in its time, but also how timeless a story it’s telling: disaffected young people who yearn for a life outside their upbringing, searching for purity and truth, and ultimately finding satisfaction by going back where they came from. Director Maggie Perrino specifically cites Holden Caufield of “Catcher in the Rye” and Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz” as previous incarnations of this kind of story. Being unhappy with The World and wanting to strike out on our own is an urge nearly everyone can relate to. “American Idiot” tells this story with an emphasis on the desperation to be unique and cool while finding commonality through frustration and pain. Add in both religious and bohemian overtones, and it presents a contradictory–and therefore very human–story.

Before I start praising the talented, energetic cast, I want to praise The Band. This is a show that would be easy (and likely cheaper) to have the cast sing to a track, but there are real musicians on the Carnegie stage playing, and it gives the show so much more life. Danny Manning on keys, Alex Foley on bass, Derek Johnson’s drums, and Aaron Almashy and Joe Tellman’s work on guitar makes everything on stage feel more real. More alive. There’s a part where Almashy directly interacts with the action on stage, and it earned an extended applause on opening night. The band’s work makes the show better.

The plot of “American Idiot” centers around Johnny (Frankie Chuter), Will (Robert Breslin), and Tunny (Ethan Baker), their drive to escape their upbringing and find their place in the world, their failures, and their homecoming. They’re living in a post-9/11 and Iraq War world, where doubt and resentment toward literally everything is the norm, and the boys are looking to leave their homes in Suburbia (population: a few) and go to The Big City (population: a shit ton). Will has to stay behind when his girlfriend, Heather (Chandler Bates), finds out she’s pregnant. Johnny and Tunny leave, but they separate when Tunny finds meaning in the overt patriotism of the era and joins the military. All three young men spiral from there: love, drugs, and rock n’ roll for Johnny, alcohol and bitter resentment for Will, and injury/amputation/PTSD for Tunny. All three guys sound great together, and they’re often singing while running on stage, selling a variety of emotions that are complex shades of anger and wounded. It’s so much more than Green Day karaoke.

The cast took their curtain call as an ensemble, and that’s entirely appropriate. From the main guys, to the women in the supporting roles (who get plenty of their own moments to shine), to the chorus that’s endlessly dancing and thrashing across the stage, this is a group of young actors who are WORKING. I say “young,” only because it appears the majority of this cast are students at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and at Northern Kentucky University. As a 38-year-old, I’m fascinated by the frame of reference this cast has for this album compared to mine. I grew up in the increasingly commercialistic 1980s, the ironic 1990s, and then to see the disaster of 9/11, knowing what things were like “before” is a perspective this cast largely doesn’t have. But it’s still interesting to see those timeless themes I mentioned before being presented and sold by this cast. Green Day may have written the words “and there’s nothing wrong with me. This is how I’m supposed to be in a land of make believe that don’t believe in me,” but they’re not the first generation of young people in America to feel that way. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the work of those women in the cast. Chandler Bates as Heather has a great moment early on when she sings “Dearly Beloved” to set up her learning she’s pregnant. There’s an intensity and earnestness to her voice that instantly sells her character’s situation. Hannah Gregory, an LCT alum herself, plays Whatsername. She and Johnny meet and fall in love and fall in drugs together. Gregory’s voice soars, and that often happens as she’s running all over the stage. The aforementioned drugs are supplied by the dangerous and alluring St Jimmy, played by an intense Maddie Vaughn, whose leering gaze and screaming rock songs come as close as this show gets to having a villain. Rounding out the cast of extraordinary women is Makenzie Ruff’s Extraordinary Girl, who provides a lifeline for Tunny to find his way back from the trauma of war. I last saw Ruff bringing the house down as Sally in NKU’s production of “Cabaret“ last year, and she delivers a fantastic performance this time around as well.

Jeremy Mayo’s lighting design is an incredible, colorful rock concert. Doug Stock’s scenic design features an impressive ladder/pole combination connecting the mezzanine with stage left. The costumes designed by Amanda Borchers are the perfect amount of ironic t-shirts, flannel, and crop tops for the era.

Whether you listened to this album a million times in your early 20s or you just enjoy seeing a high energy, in your face rock musical, slip on some Doc Martens and get to the Carnegie before September August ends. “American Idiot” plays Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Carnegie through August 25, 2019. Tickets are available here.