Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: American Idiot Blows the Roof off The Vortex

Matt Magnusson (Will), Casey Hayden, Jordan Booker, James Byous (Johnny)
 and Payson Lewis (Tunny). All photos by Ian Momii

A sexy cast of beautiful misfits inhabits Green Day’s punk rock opera American Idiot in a ferocious glory|struck production that opened last weekend at The Vortex. Directors Topher Rhys and Jen Oundjian (who also adds some powerful choreography) take full advantage of the artsy concert venue and go for a panoramic experience, moving the action offstage whenever possible. The concept enhances the surround sound feel of the show while emphasizing the isolation of its characters as they search for meaning in a sea of excess. By chopping up the visual space to include playing areas all around the warehouse, it accentuates their disconnectedness. Plus, there is a certain kind of bond an audience feels with an actor when he is dripping with sweat and singing his guts out only inches away.

It’s up to you how close you want that connection to be. When you choose your seat you’ll also choose your experience. Sitting in the center, or up close to the stage, brings you right into the action where it is easy to get caught up in the full-throttle energy the cast expends nonstop throughout the show, but it means you'll need to do some adjusting to see what happens in other areas of the warehouse.

Further back, or in the side sections, you’ll benefit from being able to see the whole picture with greater ease but you may lose some of the immediacy of being close to the performers. Either way, it will be an experience you wont likely forget. Theatre isn’t often done in a warehouse setting like this and the grunge factor works exceptionally well to frame the show.

American Idiot is based on Green Day’s concept album of the same name with music by the band, book by Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer, and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, so the experience is meant to come with a fair amount of grittiness. It’s a story of lost souls - a trio of friends who attempt to escape their suburban dead end lives only to find a different world than they expected.

Songs explode with a fury as the singers pour all their angst and frustration into Green Day’s trenchant odes to the unrest of a generation disillusioned by a post 9/11 world. The cast is provocative as all get-out which creates a passionate exchange between the music and the audience. Music director Elmo Zapp (who also plays bass & cello for the show) and his band (Ben Stanton/key board & accordion, Alex Seller/lead guitar, Max Wagner/ guitar, and Austin Farmer/drums), create a hard-driving intensity that pushes this tug of war between rage and love to the brink.

Lindsay Pearce
ohnny (charismatic
James Byous) and his pal Tunny (Jonah Platt) head off to the city where the former meets a head on collision at the intersection of drugs and a girl (Lindsay Pearce as Whatsername), and the latter is seduced by the media to join the military with severe consequences. Will (Matt Magnusson) never actually gets out of burbs because of the girlfriend he’s gotten pregnant (Briana Cuoco) and instead ends up a beer-drinking pot-smoking slacker. Each captures the heart of his character with a passion. Byous becomes almost demonic in his delirium while Platt rips into some spectacular high notes, and Magnusson’s do-right intentions slowly turn to futility.

In this guys’ journey, the women are relegated to mostly secondary status, but by the time a rejected Pearce (in her best role to date) and her girls bring the girl power in “Letterbomb,” the audience is more than ready to ride the emotional wave with them. Caitlin Ary’s sultry turn as drug dealer, St. Jimmy, (originally written for a man) adds an extra level of sexual tension and Cuoco’s hard rockin’ wail is a vocal standout.

As vivid as the production is, there are times when the staging doesn’t always make the important plot points clear. If you’ve seen a production before you’ll be able to follow the mashup of stories as they intersect without a problem but novices would benefit from the staging more clearly directing the audience’s attention. And I did miss the intoxicating flying sequence between a post-war bed-ridden Tunny and the exotic Extraordinary girl (Bianca Gisselle) of his dreams.

Regardless, this is stunning musical accomplishment that is as bold as it is affecting and deserves to be seen. 

Caitlyn Ary and James Byous

Matt Magnusson and Zach Zagoria

The cast of American Idiot

The cast of American Idiot

Lindsay Pearce (center) and the girls

The cast of American Idiot

May 15 – June 7, 2015 
glory|struck productions @ The Vortex
2341 E Olympic Blvd 
Los Angeles, CA  90021
Click Here for Tickets or call (323) 960-4429 

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