Pit & Balcony Explore the Powerful Emotional Textures of a Contemporary Musical Masterpiece

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 861   By: Robert E Martin

03rd May, 2018     0

Not since The Who dropped their ground-breaking Tommy upon an unsuspecting world has a work created such powerful and incisive undulations into the social fabric as that of American Idiot – a sung-through stage adaptation of punk rock band Green Day's rock opera of the same name, which debuted at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009 and moved to the St. James Theatre on Broadway in 2010 after 422 performances and a one-year run.

With music written by Green Day and lyrics and book by front-man Billie Joe Armstrong, when this trio of power-pop punkers first released their own definitive operatic song-cycle and struck a major chord with a new generation living in a Post-9/11 world, Armstrong decided to expand upon the concept album’s original story line, took his personal diaries in hand, and joined forces with playwright Michael Mayer to create a theatrical adaptation that ended up winning two Tony Awards along with a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.

And yes, dear readers, it must be Spring – because with a proven track-record for possessing the guts, foresight, and smarts to serve Contemporary Theatre straight-up, with no chaser, Pit & Balcony Community Theatre will premier their regional debut of American Idiot in all of its blunt, bold, and aggressive glory in a series of performances from May 11-13th and May 18-20th.  

With a story that essentially centers on three disaffected young men, Johnny, Will and Tunny – more importantly, American Idiot is a musical that deals with rage and love and those consuming emotions felt with a particular acute pang in youth, delivered from an equally young cast that deftly succeeds at burning up the stage.

Johnny and Tunny flee a stifling suburban lifestyle and parental restrictions for the freedom and hope of the Big City, while Will stays home to work out his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Heather. The former pair look for meaning in life and try out the freedom and excitement of the city. However, Tunny quickly gives up on life in the city, joins the military and is shipped off to war. Meanwhile, Johnny finds the happiness and sustenance of a blossoming relationship; but turns to drugs and finds a part of himself that he grows to dislike, experiencing lost love in the process.

Pretty powerful stuff, which I am glad to say Pit & Balcony has never shied away from.  Beginning with Spring Awakening and leading up through Next to Normal, Rent, and last year’s Heathers, Pit & Balcony has presented some of the finest, deepest, and best of all - confrontational classics of contemporary theatre that force us to look in fresh ways at the ills and issues that trouble and plaque society, without sweeping them under the rug.

For director Chad William Baker, who directed Rent for P&B two years ago, thematically American Idiot is quite similar in the sense both plays deal with younger characters living in the Big City, all dealing with various pivotal life-defining issues. Is this something Chad finds himself naturally drawn towards? 

“Yes, I guess that I am,” he laughs. “My attraction towards Rent was because it represents the kind of musical theatre that I love, but with this show it’s about Green Day. In high school and college this was the music I loved and though the cast of this production are all younger than me, even they relate to this music. They understand what it’s trying to say and I think both productions carry strong messages.”

“An interesting thing we’ve been talking about in rehearsal is how the original American Idiot album was written specifically a couple years after 9/11, and even though he’s never referenced overtly, it’s really about the years of G.W. Bush.  Then the musical was released once Obama was in office and now we’re kind of back to where we were when the album was released, with similar political stuff happening again,” continues Chad.

“All three of the main characters in American Idiot know what they want to do and none of them really succeed at doing those things, so in many ways the play is about living a life you didn’t necessarily expect to be living,” reflects Chad. “Life may not be what these characters want it to be, but it is what it is and to me the lesson of this musical is that we have to live the life that we have and make the best of it. That’s a major theme of anyone who’s my age or younger – the world isn’t completely for us in some ways and its tough, but it’s the life we have, so we need to live it.”

Because it strikes such a strong generational chord, auditions for American Idiot went extremely well. “We could have cast the show twice,” remarks Chad. “The cast consists of Joe Green playing the role of Johnny and David Hansen performing the role of Will, both making their Pit & Balcony debut, with Conner Wieland in the role Tunny.  The rest of the cast consists of Richelle Arguello, Erica Close, Madeline Lynch, Danielle Katsoulos, with an ensemble consisting of Spencer Beyerlein, Carly Dauer, Denis Koepke, Aidan Montgomery, Ally Nacarato, Cameron Plarske, Dominic Pnacek and Alene Ramos.”

Given that the music is such a driving component of this production, the orchestra consists of musical director Sara Taylor, Loren Kranz on drums, Ryan Fitzgerald on bass, with Dave Miller on lead guitar and Pat Fairfield on second guitar – a dream team guaranteed to deliver plenty of aural ammunition.

As for his biggest challenge with this production, Chad references the marriage between the music and the story. “This music wasn’t necessarily written to tell this story plot-wise,” he explains. “In the concept album everything is happening to this one amorphous character, but in the musical, its separated out into these three different characters; so the biggest challenge is figuring out the characters, insofar as there are very few spoken lines and most of that is delivered through monologues.”

For actress Erica Close who plays the character of ‘Whatshername’, what drew her to American Idiot is its edgier nature. “I was in Heathers last year and really kind of like these edgier shows,” she explains. “Being a young person my first year out of high school, with the way the world is now and even with the way the economy is, I know it’s going to be hard for me, too.  The opioid problems in this show are also a big problem in our area and I know people who have gone through some of the bigger issues happening here and love the way this show follows so many important story lines all at once and gives them all the love they deserve.”

“As an actress, my biggest challenge is that I mainly sing and don’t have any dialogue until the end of the play, which is a single line,” she continues. “So, I have to communicate a lot about my character physically and have never been in a role like this where I’ve had to express a lot things and convey the plot without saying anything, except thorough the songs. What I’ve learned through this experience is that words in many ways are like a crutch. Plus, another challenge is that I’ve never done a show where I’m doing drugs and things I would never do, yet I need to portray that accurately and honestly.”

As for lead actor Joe Green, the big appeal for him was also Green Day. “I grew up with this music and going into auditions knew all the words to the songs, especially this album. Story-wise what drew me in was that these three characters all hit these moments where they have to make decisions to do something, or sit and do nothing,” he reflects. “It pans out differently for all of them.”

“I’m a straight play actor and haven’t done a lot of musicals, so the challenge for me is breaking away from what I’m familiar with and follow what the music is trying to say.  “The key element for me is the idea of trying to find something to do with your life while feeling trapped,” he concludes.

“Each of the three main characters have stories that all resolve, but what do the characters learn from it?  At the end of the show everybody just decides this is our lives – you take the wins with the losses and do what you can with it in order to get to a point where you feel your life mattered in some way.”

Pit & Balcony Community Theatre’s Production of Green Day’s American Idiot will run from May 11-13 & May 18-20.  Showtimes are Friday & Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $25.00. Get tickets now by phoning 989.754.6587 for going to Pit and


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