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American Idiot generates excitement before the curtain rises at Guthrie's Pollard Theatre

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When The Pollard Theatre Company put out its American Idiot casting call for the musical based on the landmark 2004 Green Day album of the same name, it was flooded with hopeful responders. The production has generated a kind of excitement distinct from any other play at Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre, 120 W. Harrison Ave.

The show begins June 10 and runs through July 2.

Artistic Director W. Jerome Stevenson said whether that excitement will translate into ticket sales remains to be seen.

The musical debuted in 2009 at Berkley Repertory Theatre before moving to Broadway the following year. Billy Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s lead singer and guitarist, occasionally played the role of St. Jimmy throughout that run.

Very little dialogue is used. Instead, song lyrics guide the narrative as Johnny (aka “Jesus of Suburbia”) and his close circle of friends deal with the very real problems of a post-9/11 world.

The project the show is based on is a six-time platinum-selling concept album by Green Day. It became the soundtrack for many within a young generation frustrated by a world of war and terror.

Stevenson, who also directs Pollard’s production, said the album’s popularity contributed to the strong community response.

“I was blown away by the number of people who showed up when we auditioned for the show,” he said. “There were so many talented people that immediately, you start to say, ‘OK; we’ve got to whittle this down.’”

Stevenson said it was a priority to make sure the cast was familiar with the material and had a deep, emotional understanding of the record. This performance calls for banging and thrashing, not delicate choreography.

Matthew Allen Brown is a natural fit to portray Johnny’s drug-dealing alter ego St. Jimmy, Stevenson said. Brown has been in a number of Pollard productions and shown the charm to remain likable even as the antihero dastardly stirs the pot.

Johnny is portrayed by Pollard company member Jared Blount. Stevenson said he is the perfect choice to play the lead. Pollard found myriad other talent to fill supporting roles.

“Finding everybody else was a breeze,” he said. “It was a long process because there were so many people to choose from, but we had so many options, it was in some ways the easiest but in other ways the most difficult casting process we’ve had.”

New challenges

American Idiot presents unique challenges for Stevenson and his team. Song lyrics propel the story. Additional tunes from Green Day’s canon, such as “21 Guns,” fill out story holes.

The stage show remains loyal to the album in the sense that no lyrics were added or changed. While there is a storyline, Stevenson said there is not much direction given about how to perform it.

It is up to the cast and director to interpret each line, Stevenson explained.

“Yes, when you hear the album, you may not have that thought, but what we need to do is take the audience on a different kind of journey,” he said. “When they hear that lyric and see it accompanied by the visual we’re presenting, it immediately makes them say, ‘Oh my God. I just got another way that line is really smart.’”

American Idiot also offers a sonic escape from what Pollard’s cast of contributing musicians are used to playing. The band performs onstage with the cast.

Stevenson said many were excited by the prospect of doing something different.

“You say, ‘Hey, we’re doing American Idiot,’ and they’re like, ‘What? I want to play that show. I don’t care what other guitar player shows up,’” he said. “This is a generation of people who know these artists and were fans long before the musical happened.”

New audiences

This show is not for the stuffy or squeamish, Stevenson said. It is a grown-up production that tackles topics such as drug abuse, sex, war and fear. Pollard tries to get that message across through its posters and advertising.

“If what you want is a show that is bright and sunshiny and for the family and you can bring the kids along, you have got the wrong play,” he said. “This is just not what American Idiot is.”

Stevenson expects some audience members will not understand what the musical is and Pollard is trying to do. But his real hope is to appeal to those who will relate to what they see onstage.

Countless musicals are based on literature. In a world where popular music has overtaken the written word in cultural conversation, Stevenson said it is appropriate to produce a theatrical show that speaks that language.

“It’s that sense that the media tells us what to think, and that’s not acceptable to us,” he said. “That’s what they’re saying in this show, and it really resonates.”

Stevenson recognizes there is some risk in putting on a production that does not fit a stereotypical theater crowd, but he added that people can influence what theaters routinely offer by supporting shows like this one.

“A lot of times, [other companies] assume, ‘Oh, they’re never going to come see a play, so we’ll just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again,’” he said. “We believe that you do those plays so that you can say to the audience, ‘Yes, we can do this too.’”

Print headline: New mania, American Idiot brings the sound of hysteria to Guthrie’s Pollard Theatre stage.

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