Kinetic energy bounces off the walls of the theater during American Stage’s production of Green Day’s American Idiota “rock opera” with a common thread of history and a young cast that rarely stops long enough to catch its collective breath.
Green Day, the punk trio whose american idiot The album sold over 16 million copies worldwide, turned its songs (along with a handful of other releases) into unlikely theatrical success – it won two Tony Awards, as well as a nomination for Best Musical, when it aired on Broadway.
American Stage’s production is a mind-boggling and driving panoply of punk words, sounds and moves, set to music performed by a lively – and loud – rock band that includes screaming guitarists who occasionally stroll casually on stage, where the action is.
Johnny Shea is the New York-based actor who plays the ostensible lead character, Johnny (life imitates art, who imitates life), who calls himself “Jesus of the suburbs”. Shea holds a bachelor’s degree in musical theater from Ithica College.
And they don’t teach headbutts in drama school.
“It’s similar in style to a few other shows I’ve done, like Spring Awakening, Shea observes. “He has that rock and angsty sensibility for sure. But it’s different from the style of singing that we often do, which is a bit more vibrato – a traditional, classic sound maybe.
“The show is very direct, and we go for that sharp, almost nasal sound that is very common in this punk rock style. But it’s not a style of music that comes naturally to us. Admittedly, it’s a style that I listened to a lot growing up. It’s a chance to release that inner rock star, I guess.
The same goes for Nathan David Smith and Zummy Mohammed, who appear as Will and Tunny respectively – they’re Johnny’s pals. These three (replacement members of Green Day, perhaps?) are bored with life in Central America and yearn for something more exciting.
Smith and Mohammed, like Shea, are seasoned musical theater performers who normally do more traditional shows.
Work on american idiot, According to Shea, it’s about taking a kind of chaos and making it appear structured and artfully dangerous. The extensive choreography goes beyond simple dancing. “It’s just about allowing yourself to feel a little out of control. There’s this delicate dance between keeping it contained and the same every night, so everyone feels safe. But also have that sense of a mosh pit.
“And allowing you to maybe look a little messy or look a little ugly. That’s a big part of it. You have to put aside this idea that it should be pretty or clean – and it gives you the freedom to lose yourself in the music.
The songs lend themselves to duo, trio and chorus harmonies, creating a shimmering sonic effect.
The major criticism of Green Day’s American Idiot is that the storyline, as it stands, isn’t exactly linear.
The original Green Day album, according to Shea, actually told a story of angst, unease and experimentation.
“Lyrics,” he says, “are often metaphors. What happens is not always literal. And with some songs, I think it’s more about evoking a feeling, or something that you can relate to in your life. Even if that’s not exactly what happens on stage.
“Most important, to me, is the theme of finding something bigger. That can’t be all. These guys are leaving their hometown in pursuit of a dream. There’s got to be something better.
A key to the experience, for performers, is the exchange of energy between the stage and the audience.
“It’s different every night, but I think one constant is that you’ll see someone who knows the lyrics and moves to the beat of the music,” Shea explains. “Every night, so far.
“And it feels like a reminder that I’m doing something so much bigger than myself – that this music means so much to so many people. It really speaks to people.”
Tickets are available here.