By Richard Schultz, July 2016 Issue.
Stray Cat Theatre’s artistic director Ron May is ready to launch a new era for the Valley’s edgiest theatre company. In addition to moving to a new home at the Tempe Center for the Arts, he’s taking on the iconic two-time Tony Award-winning hit musical Green Day’s American Idiot June 24-July 16.
“It’s a very political show, but it isn’t a political show with an agenda,” May said of the powerful coming-of-age story that chronicles the experiences of a group of kids who have been abandoned by their friends, families, each other and, ultimately, by their country.
The plot centers on Johnny, Tunny and Will who struggle to find meaning in a post-9/11 world. When the three disgruntled men flee the constraints of their hometown for the thrills of city life, their paths are quickly estranged when Tunny enters the armed forces, Will is called back home to attend to familial responsibilities and Johnny’s attention becomes divided by a seductive love interest and a hazardous new friendship.
This energy-fueled rock opera with strong social messages features little dialogue and, instead, relies on the lyrics from Green Day’s groundbreaking album American Idiot, as well as several songs from its follow-up release, 21st Century Breakdown, to execute the story line.
For those who are not familiar with Green Day and their music, May cautions that the show is not a jukebox musical.
“It’s not Mamma Mia,” he explained. “There’s genuine storytelling. It was written as a rock opera from the get-go. It’s a kind of hyper-theatrical rock concert; it’s loud, but it’s not a 90-minute primal scream.”
Conversely, May believes that the silences, the ballads and the quieter moments are raw, but honest.
“What makes the show so beautiful is the quiet it finds in the midst of it all,” he said. “The score is really, really breathtaking. You might not equate punk with beautiful, but this will change your mind.”
When May first saw the show at Gammage, he absolutely loved it.
“I [have] never directed something I’ve seen before, but this was the first time. I thought, ‘Wow, this is enormous and really loud,’” he said. “As soon as it became available for production, I jumped on it. I knew the last show of the season would be the show that introduces Stray Cat in our new space. It felt like a good marriage.”
The characters have often been described as cultural archetypes, a sentiment May agrees with.
Left to right: Nicholas Gearing as Johnny and Alan Khoutakoun as St. Jimmy. Photo courtesy of John Groseclose.
“You’re dealing with a group of adolescents who are still trying to find themselves … The show is about that ugly period we’ve all been through trying to figure out our place in the world,” he said. “The show is essentially the story of three guys whose archetypes kind of echo our relationships to America or what it means to be an American.”
Interestingly, May admits that his casting for this show has an “Aaron Spelling” feel.
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” he said, “but we have a really good-looking cast and they can sing their faces off.”
Nicholas John Gearing, who plays Johnny, believes that his own life experiences have prepared him for his role.
“I have relatively recently gone through a pretty noteworthy break-up,” he said, “with that comes a complex set of emotions that has been [impacting] me on a far more cerebral and spiritual level.”
Two of Gearing’s favorite moments in the show include “Letterbomb,” when he says the female cast members “absolutely rip the place to shreds and sing the roof off. They are too amazing for words,” and when he performs “Whatsername” at the end of the show.
“It touches a very raw and real place in my heart every single time,” he said. “It has been very therapeutic.”
For Eric Boudreau, who plays Will, the challenge lies in finding places where his character is trying to be a better human and how he either succeeds or fails.
“I’m finding the moments when he doesn’t have anything to give. Depressed characters can be very one note and can seem to only suffer in their depression,” he said. “There has to be some light to give the audience a little relief from the darkness. So, I’m looking for those points where Will’s humor and sarcasm can come forward.”
Additionally, May shared that he made a quick change to one of the relationships in the show to a lesbian relationship because “it just felt honest.”
Green Day’s American Idiot
June 24 - July 16
Stray Cat Theatre
Tempe Center for the Arts
700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
Tickets: $30-$35; 480-350-2822