Letting go of hate. Questioning government. Rising above the force-fed news feed of biased media. Finding a voice. Being a castaway. Renouncing and defending war. They’re all heavy themes that run deep in Green Day’s 2004 album “American Idiot.”
In 2009 the punk-pop rock band’s platinum-selling release became a staged musical and debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before taking on Broadway a year later. The show won multiple Tonys, a Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Grammy award. Since its debut, “American Idiot” has become a modern-day hit among theatre-goers looking to expand their minds beyond vanilla song-and-dance entertainment. It’s become a statement. It’s become a rally cry. It’s become a force with which to be reckoned, as its political and social undertones speak to generations fighting against a nation’s tumultuous climate of political disparity. The themes could not be more appropriate today—or 40 years ago.
Thalian Association will premiere “American Idiot” on the Thalian Hall stage this week, codirected by David Loudermilk and Anthony Lawson. “This is more than just a narrative—it’s a statement,” Lawson tells. “I liken it to a modern day ‘Hair.’ It’s more about the feelings brought on by the music than forcing a story with lots of dialog.”
“Yes, it is edgy; yes, it is rock ‘n’ roll, but it is still theatre,” Loudermilk agrees. “It is still art and we are still telling a story.”
The music is the driving force of the show—and it’s loud. Led by music director Katie Richmond Deese on keys, the punk-rock opera will come to life with the help of guitarists Justin Lacy and Ryan Vosler, Sean Howard on bass, Benjamin Baldwin on drums, Stephen Pfeiffer on cello, Marscia Martinez-Mendoza on viola, and Adrian Varnam on violin.
“It would be easy to look at this show from the outside and believe that it would be 90 minutes of loud, angry rage against society, but there is so much more,” Deese tells. “These characters get to use the music to show their joy, frustration, fear, disappointment, love, vulnerability, pain, and yes, anger. There are moments of laughter and thought and tears, and it’s a different, personal experience for everyone involved.”
The show centers on three childhood friends, who discover themselves amidst the throes of leaving suburbia for the big city. Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia, a punk-rock freedom fighter, will be played by Richard Frank Rosario. Rosario appreciates the storytelling aspect of the show’s protagonist, which is apparent only because of Johnny’s dire struggles.
“As a human, we can understand what it’s like to be ambitious, self-righteous, reckless, naïve, strong, addicted, weak, malleable, confused, or lost from another perspective.”
Playing Will will be Christian Dionne. A local chef and musician, it’s Dionne’s first leading role onstage. Will is Johnny’s friend who gets left behind in their hometown after facing the reality of becoming an unexpected family man.
“He is still in the process of teaching me that actions have consequences, particularly when you think the only person being damaged is yourself,” Dionne tells.
Tunny—who moves to the city with Johnny, only to join the military and get deployed to war—will be played by Will Roden. Roden has had an interesting time weighing the headspace of his character.
“Was he persuaded into joining the Army or was he duped?” Roden asks. “I think it’s pretty obvious what the intended answer to that question is, but it’s hard for me to not compare and project my own experiences and feelings with the military onto Tunny. We obviously had very different experiences while serving, but there are a lot of similarities between our situations that led us both to the military. That makes me question myself. Was I persuaded? Did I make my decision to join under my own volition? I’d sure like to think so.”
It’s also Roden’s first role onstage. He has had to check his personal life at the stage door to ensure the character isn’t a mirror to his own journey. He says it’s been tough to grapple with his own political stances, as challenged by Green Day’s album. “American Idiot” is very much a response to the Bush administration and the post-9/11 era of the Iraq War.
“The message of this show is challenging,” Roden says. “It’s not a show you walk away from with the warm and fuzzies because the story isn’t wrapped up with a pretty bow. It’s very possible someone leaves offended, and that’s what makes it important. . . . I don’t believe President George W. Bush was perfect, but I do believe he made decisions with our best interests at heart; I respect him for that. With that said, for the past 12 years I’ve had a very negative opinion of [the Green Day] album. It wasn’t until my wife, in anticipation for auditions, suggested we watch ‘Broadway Idiot’ that my opinion began to change.”
“Broadway Idiot” shows the transition of “American Idiot” from rock album to punk-rock opera. Every member of Green Day was consulted the entire way through in making the musical come to life. Viewers are able to hear from Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool, and Jason White about the meaning of the album and the aftereffects of it becoming more than they had ever imagined. It’s an emotional documentary to see through the band’s eyes.
“After watching it, several things happened: While there are definitely some anti-Bush sentiments, I realized the album is more of a critique of the American people and how easily we’re influenced by our media outlet of choice, which I can get behind,” Roden tells. “Second, I think hearing from the artist [and] what was going through his mind while he was creating his art goes a long way in appreciating said art.”
Filling the roles of female lovers will be Caitlin Becka as The Extraordinary Girl (a nurse who falls in love with Will) and Johnny’s girlfriend, Whatshername, played by LaRaisha Burnette. “To be able to express frustration toward tyranny and ignorance through this vehicle of rock ‘n’ roll, has been cathartic, to say the least,” Becka tells.
The center of passion really comes alive between Johnny and Whatshername; though, it also leads them down a destructive path. It can be hard to stomach yet typical of young love set to the backdrop of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Burnette says the storytelling in the show hits home for her, as ghosts from her days of attending school in NY have risen again.
“It’s scary but wonderful to feel removed from being a rebel in the city,” she says, “and at the same time, I miss being a rebel. I was good at it.”
Will’s pregnant girlfriend, Heather, will be played by Katie Janes Villecco. Villecco embodies the idea of life plans being thwarted by unexpected circumstances. She’s also one of the stronger characters in the show who takes back control of her life and rolls with the punches.
“[I’m learning from Heather that] you have the power to change your life,” Villecco says. “It may not be right away, but you can. It’s good to remember, at least for me, that I am in the driver seat.”
The antagonist, St. Jimmy (whom Billie Joe Armstrong played during the Broadway run), is a drug dealer making life for Johnny hellish if not eye-opening. The role will be played by local actor Brendan Carter. The ensemble will be filled out by Gregory Beddingfield, Kimberly Brumsey, Anna Gamel, Meagan Golden, Ryan Gonzalez, Grant Hedrick, Paul Homick Amanda Hunter, Kai Knight, Ty Myatt, Stephen M. Raeburn, Jennifer Marshall Roden, Matthew Winner, Thomas Winner, and Hunter Wyatt.
“American Idiot” opens Thursday, April. 7, with set design by Terry Collins, lighting design by Jacki Booth, costumes by Jen Iapalucci, and choreography by David Loudermilk.