The bottom line
American Idiot, running at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery through Oct. 11, is a punk rock opera based on the band Green Day’s Grammy-Award winning album of the same name. Following the character Johnny (Jesus of Suburbia), along with his two friends Will and Tunny, the musical explores the trio's disillusionment with TV-saturated, hypocritical, suburban society and subsequent search for meaning, through an subversive production that immerses the audience in unprecedented ways. American Idiot is appropriate for adults and older teens.
Observe or immerse
This unique show is “equal parts house party, opera, rock concert and theater,” a perfect description. Audience members can choose from two ways to participate: “observational,” which means that you get a seat and the show comes to you.
The second way is an “immersive” experience, where patrons choose one of of three groups to follow, with each group paired with one of the three main characters. To do the immersive experience you must sign a waiver and kids under 18 must bring a signed parental permission slip (available on the website when you buy tickets).
The story centers around three young men, who grew up in post 9/11 suburbia and are disillusioned with their country, their parents, and just about everything else. Some of the lyrics from the first song, "Jesus of Suburbia," perfectly describe the main theme: “I’m the son of rage and love, from the Bible of none of the above, raised on soda pop and Ritalin…”
Johnny and Tunny go to the City to find meaning in life, while Will stays behind after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. As Johnny becomes a heroin addict and Tunny joins the military and goes to war, the three main characters soon find out that no issue is as black-and-white as they thought, and that life has difficulties everywhere.
My 16-year-old daughter and I saw the show both ways. In the “observational” track we felt very much a part of the action. The actors were mere inches from us and often interacted with the audience. In fact, the actors used every square inch of the theater (in the pre-show announcements the audience is told to put bags under their chairs and to “not sprawl”). Sitting on the front row, the actors ran right past our feet many times.
Audience participation to a new level
We enjoyed it so much that we went back and did the immersive experience. To do the immersive experience, you sign up for one of three tracks: The military track follows the boot camp leader and you see additional boot camp scenes downstairs. The Jesus of Suburbia/Will track follows Johnny and Will and stays mostly on the stage with those two characters. The St. Jimmy track follows St. Jimmy and you see more drug use scenes downstairs. (I was told that this track is dark and younger kids might be disturbed by it.)
We chose the military track. After signing waivers, we were given bracelets to show which group we were in. We then moved as a group multiple times during the show. We went up and down stairs, on the catwalk and even sat directly on the stage. Twice we saw scenes downstairs from “boot camp,” performed by the military characters, while the regular show, continuing on the stage, was shown on TV. Several times we had to run or at least jog to get to the next station. The actors interacted with us as if we were in boot camp, yelling things like “Backs against the wall!” “Run, keep up!” which was much more fun than it sounds.
The show uses all of the songs from the album American Idiot, plus some other Green Day music and a song written especially for the musical. Several of the actors accompany themselves on the guitar and the band has a few non-rock instruments, such as cello, violin and even the accordion. The audience seating is on two sides of the stage, and the stage itself is level with the ground.
The actors are everywhere, up and down stairs, on a catwalk on a moving staircase, and even below stage through a trapdoor. Otherwise, the set is minimal, with couches and mattresses on the floor. All 31 cast members function smoothly as one group, performing the spectacularly choreographed musical numbers with an intense energy that matches the hard-hitting, in-your-face lyrics.
Frederick Hagreen brings Johnny to life with raw emotion and an amazing voice. Fine performances also include Justin Huertas as Tunny, Trent Moury as St. Jimmy, Jimmie Herrod as Extraordinary Girl, and Kristen DeLohr Helland as Whatsername. The up-close experience and raw emotion of the cast made me feel like I was at a party instead of a play.
Parents should know
If you are familiar with the album, American Idiot, you'll know that the production has lots of profanity and references to sex and alcohol and drug use — including a realistic scene where characters shoot up heroin. However, drug and alcohol use are in no way glorified, and in fact show the dark side of drug use very clearly. The profanity doesn't feel gratuitious. I was comfortable with my 16-year-old seeing this, but I wouldn’t have brought a 12- or 13-year-old. Parents know best what's appropriate for their children (this could also be an intriguing date night out for parents).
We were told by another patron that the St. Jimmy immersive track showed much more of the heroin drug culture in the below stairs scenes. He said that those scenes were very dark and a little uncomfortable. If you have a teen with you who might be disturbed by the drug scenes, I suggest that you choose the military or Jesus of Suburbia track.
The documentary Broadway Idiot (available on Netflix) is a good introduction to this show, and also very entertaining.
If you go ...
Where: ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery is located at 4711 California Ave. SW Seattle, WA 98116
Tickets: Call 206-938-0339 or buy online.
Parking: There is plenty of paid parking all within a short walk to the theater.
Check here for a map of parking and bus routes
Tips: The front of the theater has a sign directing us to come in at the alley entrance. You walk past the theater, pass Key Bank, turn left at the corner and continue past the bus shelter and the side of Key Bank to an alley entrance.
Food: There was a concessions stand set up on the stage prior to the show with cocktails, including specialty cocktails named after characters in the show. Candy, cookies and nonalcoholic drinks are also available. There is no intermission in this 90-minute show.
Immersive experience tips: If you are doing the “immersive” experience, they will hold your purse or bag at the door, to retrieve after the show. Wear good shoes and comfortable clothes, as you will climb up and down stairs and even sit directly on the stage. Be aware that your group will be moved very quickly from station to station. (We had to jog to keep up!)
Bathroom tip: Go to the bathroom before the show! With every part of the theater in use, it would be difficult to slip out during the play.
There are several restaurants on the same street as the theater.