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Every day’s a Green Day for American Stage’s Johnny Shea

Bill DeYoung

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Johnny Shea plays "Johnny," on of the three protagonists in "Green Day's American Idiot." Photos: American Stage.

The kinetic energy is bouncing off the theater walls during American Stage’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot, a “rock opera” with a loose thread of a storyline and a young cast that rarely stops moving long enough to catch its collective breath.

Green Day, the punk trio whose American Idiot album has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide, turned its songs (along with a handful from other releases) into an unlikely theatrical hit – it won two Tony Awards, along with a nomination for Best Musical, during its run on Broadway.

American Stage’s production is a head-banging, moshpit-diving panoply of punk words, sounds and movement, set to music performed by a live – and loud – rock band that includes screaming guitar players who sometimes casually stroll onto the stage, where the action is.

Johnny Shea is the New York-based actor who’s cast as the ostensible lead character, Johnny (life imitates art, which imitates life),who calls himself “Jesus of Suburbia.” Shea has a BFA in Musical Theater from Ithica College.

And they don’t teach head banging in drama school.

“It’s similar in style to a couple of other shows I’ve done, like Spring Awakening,” Shea observes. “It has that rock, angsty sensibility for sure. But it is different from the style of singing that we often do, which is a little more vibrato – a traditional, classical-sounding maybe.

“The show is very in-your-face, and we go for that pointed, almost nasal-type sound that’s really common in this punk rock style. But it’s not a style of music that comes to us naturally. Granted, it is a style that I listened to a lot growing up. It’s a chance to unleash that inner rock star, I guess.”

Same goes for Nathan David Smith and Zummy Mohammed, who appear as Will and Tunny, respectively – they’re stage-Johnny’s pals. These three (stand-ins for the members of Green Day, perhaps?) are bored with life in Middle America and yearning for something more exciting.

Smith and Mohammed, like Shea, are veteran musical theater performers who normally do more traditional shows.

Working on American Idiot, Shea says, is a matter of taking a sort of chaos and making it appear structured and artfully dangerous. The extensive choreography is about more than just dancing. “It’s really just about allowing yourself to feel a little out of control. There’s this tricky dance between keeping it contained and the same every night, so everybody feels safe. But also having this sense of a mosh pit.

“And allowing yourself to maybe look a little messy, or sound a little ugly. That’s a big part of it. You have to put aside this idea that it should be pretty, or should be clean – and then it gives you the freedom to get lost in the music.”

The songs lend themselves to duo, trio and choral harmonies, creating a shimmering aural effect.

The major criticism of Green Day’s American Idiot is that the storyline, such as it is, is not exactly linear.

The original Green Day album, according to Shea, actually told a follow-able story of angst, unease and experimentation.

“The lyrics,” he says, “are often metaphor. It’s not always literal what’s happening. And with certain songs, I do think it’s more about evoking a feeling, or something that you can relate to in your life. Even if it’s not exactly what’s happening on the stage.

“The big thing, for me, is the theme of searching for something greater. This can’t be all it is. These guys leave their hometown in pursuit of a dream. There’s got to be something better.”

One key to the experience, for the performers, is the exchange of energy between stage and audience.

“It’s different every night, but I think one constant is you’ll see somebody who knows the words and is moving along to the music,” explains Shea. “Every night, so far.

“And that feels like a reminder that I’m doing something a lot bigger than just myself – that this music means so much to so many people. It really does speak to people.”

Tickets are available here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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