While I sat in the New Hazlett Theater to see the opening show of American Idiot, back in my small West Virginia hometown the community theater had their opening show of Grease. They are putting on Grease because it is exactly what the people there want: it’s a classic, it’s wholesome, and it’s a safe show that won’t offend anyone. It even starts at seven so that people aren’t out too late. I’m sure it was a great production that everyone loved. But when the lights went down in Pittsburgh the cast of American Idiot came out: all black, all young, and all yelling furiously. As they tore into the opening number, belting out lines like “maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda” I was reminded why I love seeing theatre here: variety. I’m all for fun silly theatre (I saw Shrek for God’s sake) but theatre is at its best is when it grabs an audience and delivers a message, and that is exactly what the Alumni Theater Company does. I was jolted with the realization I was about to see something you don’t get to see everywhere, and that excitement stayed with me through the whole ninety-minute act.
American Idiot is a musical that grew from the Green Day album of the same name. The album was written as a “punk rock opera” and as such the stage version is mostly entirely sung trough in the same order, with a few songs added in. The admittedly loose plot centers on three friends (Johnny, Tunny, and Will) who are getting tired of living in their small and boring town. After finally snapping and getting fed up with going nowhere, the trio decides to make a break for “the city”. Will ends up not leaving to stay home and deal with a pregnant girlfriend. Tunny soon runs off to join the army. Johnny has a blast but runs into trouble with bad influences and falling in love. The opera chronicles their separate yet intertwining ordeals, set to the angst-filled punk rock that Green Day is known for.
Now as it is, American Idiot has a lot to say to its audience. It’s a show about the dangers of leaving to go out on your own but also the dangers of staying where you are and feeling “stuck”. It’s an anti-war piece for a new generation. But performed with a young and all-black cast (as is custom for ATC) the show takes on so much more. It’s not just a young generation trying to find their way in life; it’s a group standing up against the way they’re treated by society. A screen above the stage displays important scenes and images in black history, from President Obama to Rosa Parks and so many more. But one visual up there consistently was the American flag, a reminder that we are all human beings and it is outrageous how bad things have been. One ensemble member wears an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. The number “21 Guns”, while an antiwar number, also becomes a Black Lives Matter statement. It’s hard not to imagine the ensemble pleading to police as they sing “lay down your arms”. It’s powerful stuff.
Now to gush about the company at ATC, who have all done a fantastic job. A great set and lighting design job (by Katelynn Fynaardt) is both practical for the staging but also creates an in-your-face rock show. The young ensemble (average age in the cast is 18) have a lot of dancing in order to create a scary and confusing world, and they do so without showing any signs of tiring. The three male leads, Shamari Nevels (Johnny), James Perry (Tunny), and Shae Wofford (Will), deliver incredible punk-rock vocals that capture the trials and frustrations their characters go through. Lyn Starr is smooth and dangerous as Johnny’s dark conscience St. Jimmy, while Tyra Jamison (Heather) and Elexa Hanner (Whatshername) provide strong voices yet vulnerabilities as two women in the boys’ lives. Another shout out for the enticing and expressive dancing of Cherish Morgan as Tunny’s “Extraordinary Girl” (pictured below). Really, the whole damn cast is so talented so hats off to them and the production team.
So we’ve got ourselves a good punk rock musical, and probably the most powerful bit of theatre I’ve seen all summer. There are the occasional snags with hearing some lyrics over a rock band that never really gets to stop playing, but that’s to be expected. The characters in American Idiot find a way to resonate with everyone, whether you get carried away like Johnny, make desperate choices like Tunny, or feel trapped in your life like Will. This production delivers some beautiful imagery, wonderful performances, and hits home a powerful message. I highly recommend you catch it this weekend.
Special thanks to Alumni Theater Company for complimentary press tickets. American Idiot runs at the New Hazlett Theater through July 31st. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Photos courtesy of ATC’s Facebook page.