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Friday, May 25, 2018
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'American Idiot' musical stays true to Green Day

As with any job, there are occupational hazards that come with being an actor in musical theater.

On the touring production of “American Idiot,” it's the “bangover.”

“There are definitely some bangovers,” said Evan Jay Newman, the production's musical director, who also performs as part of the show's onstage band. “That's what we call the headache you have the next day after you've been on stage headbanging.”

Of course there would be headbanging. “American Idiot” was adapted from Green Day's Grammy-winning, 2004 concept album of the same name — one of the most head-bangable rock albums around, and the album that rejuvenated the punk trio's career with monster hits such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me up When September Ends,” and the title track “American Idiot.”

Green Day singer, songwriter and guitarist Billie Jo Armstrong worked with director Michael Mayer to write the hit show, which ran for a year on Broadway and won a pair of Tony Awards for set design and lighting.

But how do you turn rip-roaring, guitar-thrashing rock songs into material for a musical without alienating Green Day fans or musical theater lovers? By not messing with them too much, Newman says.

“We worked really hard to make sure it had an authentic Green Day sound, not just musical theater's version of a Green Day sound, and I think that's part of what has made it successful,” he said. “There's this raw, unapologetic vibe in this show that you don't ever really see in theater. It's rare to see a popular album presented on stage without the production trying to put anything on it. But nobody said, 'This is musical theater, we need to conform to the classical musical theater style you're used to.'”

Of course, there are theatrical dressings.

“I'm in love with (musical supervisor) Tom Kitts's arrangements, the vocals and the strings and other stuff he added in,” Newman said. “I even play accordion in the show. It takes a certain kind of genius to think 'Hmm, punk rock, accordion,' but it really works.”

The musical expands the plot of the concept album from one to three protagonists, three reckless young men full of angst and antsiness as their lives diverge from a small suburban town. One goes off to war with dire consequences, one heads to the big city with his guitar and one is stuck in a mind-numbing rut at home with an unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend.

The show promises a healthy dose of sex, drugs, violence, politics and high-volume, high-energy rock 'n' roll that actress Jenna Rubaii said makes it unlike any other show around (and inappropriate for young kids).

Rubaii, a 23-year-old Clearwater High School grad and Clearwater native, plays “Extraordinary Girl,” a nurse to a character who's injured while serving in Iraq, and a cross between “I Dream of Genie and an Arabic angel” during a big, hallucinogenic flying sequence.

“It's punk rock, it's hardcore, it's in your face, but it's also a spectacle musical too, and if you're a theater fan who's looking for beautiful sets and lighting and movement, you're going to get that,” Rubaii said. “You'll never see a more diverse audience than at this show. We get hardcore Green Day fans, and people who don't necessarily go to see musicals very often, along with older theater fans who go all the time.”

And there are advantages to working with material from an album that has sold more than 15 million copies.

“You look out and people are singing and dancing and they know every word, and you get this huge rush of energy and adrenaline. We love it. It's like being on stage at a rock concert.”