“American Idiot” Rocks the Warner

Green Day’s “American Idiot” isn’t just a show. It’s an experience. Co-director/choreographer/producer Sharon Wilcox said it best.

This is not your average musical. Get ready for a night of head-banging rage and love fun in this post-9/11 punk rock opera by the Warner Theatre Stage Company.

The rights just became available for the Broadway show and the Warner is the first theater group in Connecticut to put on this production.

Don’t expect something pretty, expect something gritty. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, that’s all in there, as well as a lot of profanity and F-bombs.

The storyline is a bit challenging to follow because this isn’t your typical show with a linear plot. There’s no dialogue and the song lyrics are sometimes hard to hear as the band overpowers a lot of the solos. I wish I listened to the album before so I already knew the words. The only spoken words are monologues by the main character, Johnny (Christopher Franci) that give the show a semblance of a narrative. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story.

It follows the lives of Johnny and his two friends struggling to find meaning the year after 9/11. The three are itching to get out of their hometown. Johnny moves to the city and grows lonely. His dark side, personified in his alter ego St. Jimmy (Tony Leone), takes over and he becomes a hard core drug abuser and falls in love or lust with sexy Whatsername next door, played by Lynn D’Ambrosi. Will (Scott Murphy) stays home to be with a girl named Heather (Katie Brunetto) and gets her pregnant, living out a downward-spiraling relationship. Tunny (Stephen Lenczewski) goes off to fight in Afghanistan, gets injured and meets Extraordinary Girl (Lauren Jacob).

You almost have to think of it like a CD. It’s a compilation show featuring songs from Green Day’s “American Idiot” album. When you listen to a CD, each song can stand alone. Sometimes you listen to them out of order. But when pieced together, they all add layers to the meaning in the entire album. If you come to “American Idiot” to understand it, you might leave baffled about what just happened. Take it scene by scene as vignettes and focus on how it makes you feel and what significance it has for you rather than trying to make sense out of it. It’s not meant to have one answer or one way of experiencing it because that’s life. It’s complex.

It’s the ultimate sensory overload. There’s a lot to take in all at once.

You may be showered in magazine clippings at one point.

You’ll literally feel the music, with subwoofers from the main stage under your seats to enhance the sound of a hidden but already powerful rock band. The orchestra is made up of music director Meric Martin and Mark Wilcox on guitar, Aaron J. Bunel on keyboard, Paul Bilodeau on bass, Joe Pitassi on drums, Julie Hassler on cello, Katie Gomes and Connie Perna playing violin and Jackie Tyson on viola.  The strings are on one side of the stage and the rock instruments are on the other, so the band fills the room. It was recommended to me that I bring ear plugs in case the volume was too loud and while the sound certainly fills the small studio space, it didn’t bother me. But others wore them, so if you’re sensitive to too much noise, bring them to mute the sound level.

Then there’s the lighting by designer Jameson H. Wiley with over 800 light cues. More than 30 TVs stacked on the set run throughout the show. Some are static, but most show video footage, from 2001 broadcast news and talk show clips to footage of the production shot by co-director Katherine Ray and edited by her partner in crime, Sharon Wilcox.

You almost won’t recognize the Warner’s Nancy Marine Studio Theatre. The multi-platformed open set with a floor-level stage invites the audience into the underbelly of a disillusioned, lost America grasping for purpose and living in the moment. The actors casually get into place with the lights up as people still filter in, so that is a little confusing because it’s not what the audience is used to, but it’s very modern and rips away the curtain and the proverbial fourth wall. It gets you in the world before the show starts.

And that’s just the production elements.

From the moment the show opens with a dynamic “American Idiot” number featuring multiple solos by leads and ensemble and rugged punk rock dancing, perhaps the most powerful song in the show, the energy level of the actors never drops. Before every rehearsal, they underwent a fitness regimen of exercises and mile-long runs to get them through the hour-and-a-half show without intermission. And it showed. Yes, a couple of shirtless men on stage had six packs. But mostly, it showed in the endurance this production required with constant dance numbers, some of the most impressive dancing I’ve ever seen at the Warner, choreographed by Sharon Wilcox. I felt like I was getting a workout just watching the show.

The show doesn’t just rely on verbal storytelling, it’s very visual. So I actually followed the story best by paying attention to the acting, dance and video elements that paired with the music to help me fish out the symbolism. Being an English major trained in literary analysis and storytelling also helped. If you are artsy and can appreciate the abstract, this is the show for you.

I read the story through the emotions of the actors and the mood of the music. A lot of the show isn’t just what the characters before you are going through. It’s how it makes you feel as an individual as the music gives you your own groove as a spectator. Some audience members were even dancing in their seats. I once saw a similar type of show, “We Will Rock You,” a rock musical produced by the surviving members of Queen based on all their music and the audience actually got up and danced like they were at a rock concert. Opening night, the sold-out crowd at “American Idiot” didn’t get quite there, but maybe it’s because we didn’t know we were allowed to and were processing it all. But, save the risk of blocking the person sitting behind you, I think it would be appropriate because there is a rock concert vibe to this production. This show is anything but conventional and it would be fun for that to happen.

The 21 guns of this show, an ensemble scripted to be that number, are very strong, each building their own character and putting their all into every expression and movement. Their heart and passion for this show shines through.

D’Ambrosi, flaming red hair and all, sings the song by that name very beautifully and has a lot of power in her voice necessary for an edgy rock show. She stood out the most vocally and you can tell she really committed to the role, completely infused with passion and embodying her character. She’s very brave too, jumping from a platform into the arms of the crowd with no hesitation. Brunetto and Jacob join her for a wonderfully harmonized trio. It’s a song that bring’s delicacy to the rugged, head-banging music of the rest of the show.

Jacob also puts on an impressive exotic dance for Tunny in “Extraordinary Girl” and her voice has a strong, clear tone quality of pop and rock proportions.

Franci, Lenczewski and Murphy sound the best when they’re harmonizing together, and they even have guitars on stage, though it was hard to tell who was actually playing. I think I heard some strumming from Murphy, but I was on his side of the stage. Full-out guitar playing in the lead roles could have added more musical intrigue to the production because you don’t often see actors playing live on stage, but there’s a lot going on and the band certainly isn’t lacking in instrumentation.

Even though St. Jimmy isn’t real and his introduction into the story is abrupt, Leone makes that character very present. You won’t recognize him on stage, partially because of the studded collar, black nail polish, heavy eyeliner and tattoos. His vocal prowess was impressive and he was able to cut through the band so you could understand him. The energy he puts into the dance, jumps, kicks and all, depicts the enraged, combative nature of his character’s antagonistic role.

Noel Roberge, Ruben Soto, Jesse T. Hunter and Rodney K. held their own in featured solos. Rick Mantell, Erica Blasko, Michaelle Funaro, Morgan Grambo, Jenna Morin, Rachel Newman, Rachel Perlin, Breanna Riollano and Beverly Rodenberg completed the ensemble and did not go unnoticed.

There were some pitchy moments in some of the solos in general, but given how out of breath the actors must have been from all of the dancing and the strength of the music backing them, it’s amazing they accomplished as much as they did with their voices. Actually the most powerful songs in the show come from the body the ensemble adds to the sound backing the solos. Every person is important in this production.

Wilcox said it was a true team effort and it really shows.

Production stage manager Taryn Glasser, sound designer Chris LaPlante, costume designer Renee Purdy, assistant costume designer Jessica Camarero, fight choreographer Rob Richnavsky, master carpenters Steve Houk, Kevin Hales, set builders Wes Baldwin, Terry Breen and John Quin, lighting crew Liz Glasser, Mike Griffin and Christian Johnson, follow spot operator Jodi Baldwin, set painters Karla Woodworth and Lana Peck, archival videographer Jeffrey B. Schlichter and promotional photographer Luke Haughwout rounded out the production team. Willey also designed the set and Woodworth handled the props. Wes Baldwin also helped with follow spot operation and sign language choreography, along with Jodi Baldwin. Glasser, Sharon Wilcox, LaPlante and Riolanno assisted with lighting. Ray did video design and is credited with the execution of the video in the show, along with Liz Glasser, Sharon Wilcox and Randale Nunley.

The show initially seems to resolve with Johnny telling us he met the girl of his dreams and has a job (and he’s finally taking showers), but then there’s another song with a flashback to him wondering about Whatsername that makes it open-ended. It could have ended with the previous song to bring closure to the show, but then again there’s always the life the characters live after the story that we never get to see in a book or movie without a sequel. Actually, that’s life. You think you get what you want and then there’s always more and perhaps some unresolved stories. You keep living.

The cast ended the show with a song that’s not on the album, a throwback favorite, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” All the guitarists in the cast were out for a nice acoustic rendition of the old Green Day favorite almost all the actors had a solo moment. They had me singing along. I had the time of my life and I hope you do too. It’s a thrill.

There’s a matinee today at 2 p.m., followed by another weekend of shows, next Thursday, Friday and Saturday (June 18-20) at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 21 at 2 p.m. The Warner Theatre is located at 68 Main Street in Torrington. Go to www.warnertheatre.org/upcoming-events/americanidiot for more information on the show and to buy tickets.

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