Theater Review: American Idiot LA at the Vortex

From the moment you enter the Vortex, the downtown LA warehouse performance space that is home to the current immersive production of American Idiot, it’s clear it is not the Idiot many theater fans came to know and love on Broadway and on tour over the past several years. This is Idiot like you haven’t seen it before, stripped down and gritty with a strong emphasis on the “rock” in “rock musical.” The polish and shine of Broadway is gone, and much like the warehouse it takes place in, this production is raw and all-consuming.

image1 (4)American Idiot, a favorite show of mine, ran on Broadway for a year back in 2010-2011, followed by three national tours. When the final tour wrapped up last year, the rights became available for the show to be produced regionally. This LA rendition is produced by glory|struck productions, a company known for its local productions of Spring Awakening and Bare in recent years. Directed by Topher Rys and Jen Oundijian and starring 18 talented young performers, many of whom have previously appeared in other glory|struck shows, the production will play only 11 total performances (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through June 7th with no performance on May 24th). I attended the final performance of opening weekend on May 17th and was instantly won over by the imaginative set design. Although there is a main stage on which the majority of the primary action takes place, the company utilized the entire warehouse, which kept the audience engaged as they continually looked around to see where the story was taking them next. My favorite feature was the painting of the wall above the theater bathrooms to look like a 7-11, a locale which features prominently in the show. Sure enough, those scenes took place on that side of the space.

I will admit that as someone who saw the Broadway and touring productions a combined 28 times (yes, I’m aware that I’m crazy), the vast differences in this version were initially a bit shocking. Things as small as the couch where Will, one of the main characters, plays out most of his storyline being on the opposite side of the stage took some getting used to, as did the different choreography (although the strong influence of Steven Hoggett’s original work was abundantly clear, especially in the most crucial moments). As is inevitable when seeing a re-imagining of any piece you’re intimately familiar with, there were some changes I liked more than others.

image2 (2)Before I get into the nitty-gritty of what stood out to me, I need to recognize the talented cast. Multiple actors will play Johnny and Tunny throughout the run, but at the performance I attended they were played by James Byous and Alec Cyganowski, respectively. I was impressed with how different Byous’s take on the main character was from other portrayals I’ve seen. I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by the production’s choice to have a female (Caitlin Ary) play Johnny’s bad influence alter ego, St. Jimmy. This is the role Billie Joe Armstrong temporarily played on Broadway, and with the exception of a brief New York run for Melissa Etheridge, the role has been traditionally male. Ms. Ary has a terrific voice and commanded every scene she was in, and the gender dichotomy enabled the directors and actors to turn Johnny and St. Jimmy’s relationship into that not just of a confused youth and his alter ego, but into two-thirds of a love triangle. This added an interesting new angle to St Jimmy’s eventual role in the demise of Johnny’s relationship with Whatsername (LA theater favorite Lindsay Pearce).

In addition to the emotional and vocally talented Ms. Pearce, actresses Briana Cuoco and Bianca Gisselle portrayed the other two featured female characters, Heather and the Extraordinary Girl. Ms. Gisselle in particular blew me away with what I found to be the most impressive vocals of the night in the song named after her character. I also very much enjoyed Matt Magnusson’s quietly affecting Will, in particular his choice to have a fleeting moment of happiness before the panic in the scene when Heather tells him she’s pregnant, something I had not seen before in other portrayals of the character. I found the show shined brightest, however, in the moments when the entire ensemble was onstage giving it their all. Overall, it’s a very youthful company with powerful rock voices and an obvious commitment to the story and choreography. They made it their own while staying true to the heart of the show.

I need to discuss another specific interesting choice this production made (spoilers to follow). At the end of “Know Your Enemy,” St. Jimmy has traditionally given Johnny a knife, which he uses to threaten Whatsername and then himself while in a drug-induced rage. In this production, the knife is replaced by a gun, which made me gasp. A bold choice, I felt it raised the stakes for the following number, aptly titled “21 Guns,” making it the most powerful moment of the performance for me. To me, the hallmark of a successful regional production or re-staging of a show is when it makes you look at an aspect or moment you thought you understood in a whole new light. I felt this way about Deaf West’s phenomenal Spring Awakening last year, and I felt that way this past Sunday at the Vortex.

Given my history with this show, it would have been impossible for me to go in without preconceived notions. Underneath all of the changes, the spirit of the show is intact, and being explored in exciting new ways. I want this show to always live on so new audience members can experience it for the first time and also so familiar fans can revisit an old friend whenever they’d like. Regardless of which camp you fall into, get yourself to Jingletown before June 7th. For more information and tickets, visit www.americanidiotlosangeles.com.


One thought on “Theater Review: American Idiot LA at the Vortex

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