When Green Day was first performing around its West Berkeley, Calif. neighborhood in the early ’90s, its sound was not seed for Broadway musicals. It was grimy, exuberant and emblematic of a punk rock ethos.
This was long before the band conceived the rock opera material that birthed its eventual two-time Tony Award-winning “American Idiot” – and more than two decades before director Matthew LaChiusa and the American Repertory Theater of WNY could debut their stripped-down take on the popular production. Thursday night, the ART’s actors, Billy Horn-led musical direction and Black Rock backdrop all paid tribute to the original, while presenting a product illustrative of the punk genre’s collaborative foundation.
“American Idiot” tells the story of three friends seeking their own stateside filling to remedy the emptiness of post-9/11 culture. Christopher Teal’s Johnny wants to flee his mother and stepfather for the thrill of the city; Jordan Levin’s Tunny is seduced into service by mass-marketed patriotism; and Jesse Ryan Tiebor’s Will just wants to keep the trio together, hoisting Pabst cans amid repeated viewings of “The Breakfast Club.” All three actors brought their own poignancy to their eventually frayed characters, whether with Teal and a frustrated Tiebor aside female counterparts Sara Kow-Falcone (Whatshername) and Carolyn LW Lansom (Heather); or with Levin on acoustic guitar, introducing his and his friends’ descent into turmoil via “Give Me Novacaine.”
Instrument-led moments like this were not departures from the narrative; they were its politically charged basis, with more than 20 Green Day songs by bassist Rosemarie Lorenti, percussionist Nick Corello, guitar by Teibor, and Horn on vocals and lead guitar – in between stints as the exalted heroin manifestation, Saint Jimmy. Radio favorites “Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” doubled as character testimonials; and full ensemble takes on “21 Guns” and “We’re Coming Home Again” provided searing imagery.
But delivered in the bare-bones confines of its Amherst Street locale – as well as near old moshing venues like Showplace Theater and next door to Buffalo’s beloved Sportsmen’s Tavern – gave the production unintended authenticity. In a utilitarian space, the production’s substance could shine forth without contradiction, and with the same jovial energy at the root of punk’s three-chord communion.