Twenty young voices belt “I don’t wanna be an American idiot!” in a singular chorus of teenage angst and aggression in a classroom at Bluegrass Community and Technical College as the department wraps up six weeks of preparation for the Kentucky college premier of “American Idiot.”
The quick-paced, hot-tempered musical debuted in 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California before moving to Broadway in 2010, followed by a four-year international tour. Written by Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of the punk band Green Day, and Michael Mayer, whose Broadway directing credits include “Spring Awaking” and “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” the musical is a stage adaptation of the 2004 Green Day album “American Idiot,” which the band conceived as a punk rock opera. The story is centered on three suburban young men who try to escape the clutches of their cul-de-sac lives in a post 9-11 world.
“One of my students said (the musical) is about ‘learning to screw up and recover from that,’” says Tim X. Davis, coordinator and founder of the BCTC theater program and director of the production. “I think it’s accepting growing up and our own mortality. These three boys face drugs, isolation and a war.”
A celebration of sorts
The program doesn’t produce a musical every year, but it’s the theater program’s 10th anniversary, and Davis wanted to do something big. He wanted something that had relevance to the world today and something “important to the lives our students lead and will lead.”
“American Idiot” captures a feeling of hopelessness that people can often find when they are trying to, unsuccessfully, navigate their young lives. Stitched alongside this is the lure of drugs, war and lust.
“It’s heavy. It’s not for young children,” Davis says. “It has substance abuse, sexuality, depression. It’s frank. It’s rock ’n’ roll.”
But, just as the musical covers these dark themes, the actors are finding many hopeful messages while playing their roles.
“No matter how much life beats you down, you can always go home to your friends and family,” says freshman Madison Webb, who plays the inner demon St. Jimmy. Her favorite moment is the tenderness among the three boys when they do return home.
J.T. Miller, 19, plays Tunny, who hopes to find the American dream by enlisting in the army. Miller says he hopes that the audience will take away a message that “time may not heal all wounds, but it gives you the strength to keep going.”
The cast of “American Idiot” is a combination of BCTC students and Lexington talent. The average age of cast members is 20. Most of the actors were familiar with the iconic protest album and remembered going through middle and high school with it.
“It’s really cool to get a voice for my generation,” says student Ashley Peel, 24, who plays Extraordinary Girl. “It’s neat to bring these songs back to life and show our parents what we were going though at that time.”
School of punk rock
Other cast members were a little too young to remember the punk rock of the early 2000s.
“They’ve made me really proud,” manager and 2014 BCTC alumni Tessa Folsom says of the cast. “They’re a young cast who have really taken the challenge of figuring out what this punk rock thing is all about.”
Folsom credits part of that to Davis, an unabashed rock music fan. Another part of the punk rock tutoring is choreographer Sara Adkins, 24, a former student at BCTC.
“We had to introduce them to that era of music, of dancing, of punk,” Adkins says. “I never thought I would get to teach head-banging.”
The 90-minute performance is filled with Green Day radio crashers including “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” and “21 Guns,” but it also will feature several Green Day B-side songs that Davis says are “tremendous” and straddle “both sides of musical theater and the anger and frustration of rock ’n’ roll.”
“American Idiot” isn’t a typical musical by Broadway standards, and that makes choreographing difficult. Adkins says she had to abandon her classical ballet training and find something that “did the story justice.”
Matching the intensity of the music, the dancing is harsh and wild and barely leaves a still moment for the audience. The actors use their bodies to punctuate the music, which is the driving force of the musical; there is almost no dialog among the characters.
Webb says it’s the music that “breathes so much life into the acting” to help “process the message of ‘American Idiot’ the album.”
The band director for the show is Eastern Kentucky University communications professor Jim Gleason, who also plays in the Lexington rock band The Johnson Brothers. Gleason is no stranger to Davis and the work produced at BCTC: He has been part of the house band for other shows, including the 2013 performance of “Godspell,” and he played for area productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy” with the Johnson Brothers, who have performed entire albums of Steely Dan.
As the cast and directors prepare to take “American Idiot” to the Downtown Arts Center stage, the overall feeling is excitement.
“I am pleased and honored to bring (‘American Idiot’) to the people here,” Davis says.
If you go
What: Bluegrass Community and Technical College Theatre’s production of the Green Day musical
When: 7:30 p.m. March 30 and 31, 7 p.m. April 1 and 2 p.m. April 2
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $12 students, $15 adults