All across the alien nation
Fresno City College’s incendiary production of “Green Day’s American Idiot” opens with the cast singing a raucous version of the title song. The number unfolds with thrashing choreography on a grunge-punk-industrial set pulsing with video projections and drenched in moody lighting. Near the end, one of the show’s pivotal characters, Johnny (Josh Taber), takes a flying leap and lands on a bare mattress in the middle of the stage.
It’s a sliver of a moment in a show filled with visual and aural excess, but it caught my eye.
Why? Because it’s so playful.
Sure, there is grit and angst aplenty in this punk-rock tale of generational disaffection. How could there not be? Its characters fight for a chance to make a difference in a country that is embroiled in two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), mired in economic inequality, and pandered and sold to by a relentless corporate media. Not to mention the murky torrent of alcohol and drug abuse that washes through the show like a raging river.
But there’s also a sense of levity here. Of fun. Of getting down to a primal level and having a stomping good couple of hours in the theater. Beds can be used for a variety of activities: passing out after a bender, having sex, shooting up heroin. And just plain sleeping. But in a nod to childhood innocence, you can also jump on your bed. To a kid, isn’t that what they’re made for?
Director Charles Erven’s greatest accomplishment in this slick, fierce show is finding the sweet spot between alienation and celebration. Too much of the former and you end up with a bunch of whining. Too much of the latter and the real-life social and political issues seem trite.
In achieving this balance, Erven corrals his pumped-up cast into an effusive, tight-knit ensemble.
Yes, there were some wobbles on opening night — a (first-rate) band that occasionally overpowered some of the performers, a few vocal performances that lacked confidence and charisma, some varying skill levels in terms of the dancing — but overall, in terms of the sheer combustibility of the show, it’s on fire.
The narrative of “American Idiot,” which was expanded from Green Day’s concept album (book and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, book by Michael Mayer), uses a classic quest structure. Three young men hope to better their lives. Johnny, Will (Marcus Cardenas) and Tunny (Dylan Hardcastle), are three longtime friends desperate to leave Jingletown, their parochial and uninspiring small city.
Poor Will doesn’t get very far. He can’t even get out of town because he impregnates his girlfriend, Heather (Jana Price), and he winds up staying home slumped on his tired couch, slamming beers. Johnny and Tunny manage to head for the big city to make it big. But Tunny soon succumbs to the siren call of the military and is shipped overseas.
It’s left to Johnny, then, to serve as our rebellious artist. His storyline might not come as much of a surprise — he ends up spending much of the time shooting up — but he does meet a strong woman, Whatsername (Marisa Sanchez), who we hope can balance his more self-destructive tendencies.
The show is a sung-through musical (a rock opera, essentially), with one well-known Green Day hit after another rolling by, and part of the appeal of “American Idiot” is getting to connect these songs into a tangible narrative. “Holiday,” “September,” “21 Guns” and “Whatsername” — just to name a few of the most recognizable tunes — seem to increase in stature and potency in this Broadway adaptation. The music is hard-driving, but it can also be tender and haunting, and the score is accessible to far more than just committed Green Day fans.
Cristal Tiscareno’s impressive choreography gives the lineup of songs a unified sensibility. In a nod to punk rock, the dancing has a crouched, feral, fist-pumping aesthetic that nevertheless still finds moments of stillness (the boxer-clad marching soldiers in “Favorite Son”) and even humor (the surf-punk vibe of “Too Much, Too Soon” with a spiffy contribution from ensemble members Alex Figueroa and Madeline Rydberg).
Taber is a compelling leading actor, with a strong physical impact — his shock of dark hair teased to impossible heights, his slender frame accentuated by Debra Erven’s accomplished (and expertly distressed) costumes — and a soulful voice. He’s matched in intensity and stage presence by Aaron Pierce’s St. Jimmy, the alter ego-slash-hallucination manifested by Johnny. (Pierce’s vocals are the strongest of all the male principals.) Hardcastle brings a stoic grace to his soldier’s role as Tunny, and Cardenas brings depth to his couch-bound character.
Sanchez is a standout. One of my favorite moments of the show: the harrowing song “Last Night on Earth,” which features her and Taber shooting up heroin and intertwining themselves in a graceful ballet of surgical tubing. Sanchez’s vocals are very good, and the physical choices she makes convey everything from raw sexuality to steely determination.
Price, as the pregnant Heather, offers along with Sanchez the show’s strongest vocals. Bri Villanueva brings a nice emotional timbre to the role of Extraordinary Girl, Tunny’s love interest. And I’d remiss if I didn’t mention the hard-working ensemble overall, which has attitude (and talent) in abundance.
Christina McCollam Martinez makes her debut as Fresno City College’s new scenic/lighting designer, and it’s memorable. Her versatile set, strewn with scraps of paper, has a decaying, Rust Belt kind of feel, and scaffolds on movable platforms add to the sense of height and scale. She fits the fine pit band (under the direction of Andrew Esquer) into the infrastructure, with large porthole-style cutout windows giving us a glimpse at the musicians. The lighting design is charged and insistent, veering from rock spectacle to emotionally nuanced. The lights complement Austin Dozier’s inspired projection design, which offers a visual bombardment of video and still images, from warplanes soaring toward the audience to psychedelic kaleidoscopes. Debra Erven’s makeup design is stellar as well.
At the core of “American Idiot” is Green Day’s music, and it’s impressive how pithy the lyrics of the album can seem nearly 15 years later. There’s a different president, and a (possible) different war on the horizon, but disaffection remains. (So does rampant commercialism, corporate media and income inequality, for that matter.) How you read such things depends on your politics.
But regardless of a person’s “blueness” or “redness,” there’s still that fun I mentioned. Go ahead: Bounce on your bed. “American Idiot” is a lot of things: bombastic, emotional, tuneful, prescient. It’s also a pounding good time. For a country that seems even more fractured than ever, that’s something we can all agree on.
“American Idiot,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday; Oct. 12; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Fresno City College Theatre. $14 general, $12 students/staff/seniors.
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