The set design of Colburn Hall, not a traditional location for theatrical performance area, immediately signaled to the audience that the Kenyon College Players’ (KCP) production of American Idiot would not be a typical musical. Audience members had the options of sitting either in folding chairs or directly on the floor, just centimeters away from the “stage” where the cast would be performing. Colburn was dark and crowded, with cardboard signs covered in spray paint plastering the walls and bearing remarks on 9/11 and the Bush presidency. Described as an “energy-fueled rock opera,” American Idiot’s edgy, raucous stage design set the tone for the show: It almost wants you to feel uncomfortable.
The musical follows the lives of Johnny (James DiSandro ’22), Tunny (William Newhart ’23) and Will (Mike Henry ’20), who struggle to find meaning in a post 9/11 world. Bored with the routine of their small hometown lives, the trio leaves for the city. However, this plan is quickly turned on its head when Will has to return home to care for his pregnant girlfriend and when Tunny later decides to enlist in the Army. This leaves misguided Johnny alone to experience the highs and lows of city life, which includes love, loss and drug addiction. Needless to say, American Idiot tackles a host of issues in a post 9/11 world, using Green Day’s iconic album, the show’s namesake, to do so.
Addiction is one of the main issues the show tackles. Johnny befriends the chaotic St. Jimmy (Olivia Lopes ’22), a character representing drugs and the addiction to them. For example, each time Johnny is in the presence of St. Jimmy, the pair shoot up heroin. This is most seen during the performances of “St. Jimmy” and “Give Me Novacaine,” echoing the lyrics of “I’m here to represent / that needle in the vein of the establishment” and “Out of body and out of mind / …Jimmy says it’s better than here.” This relationship adds great depth to the characters, as we see Johnny hit rock bottom and grow from the struggle. Towards the end of the musical, St. Jimmy eventually dies, symbolizing Johnny’s ability to overcome his heroin addiction.
Meanwhile, Will and Tunny face upheavals of their own. Will appears forlorn in every one of his scenes, depressed that he couldn’t accompany his friends on their trip to the city. He sits on a couch in the corner of the set for most of the show, though this setting doesn’t distract from the big issues he fares. He struggles with his pregnant girlfriend, who eventually leaves him for being a bad partner and father due to his addiction to alcohol and cocaine. In the Army, Tunny gets critically injured in combat and has to deal with the resulting trauma.
The musical featured a full live band, which added a layer of immersion. Ensemble members stomped, kicked, jumped, sang and even screamed in audience members’ faces, often making intense eye contact as they did so. This high-energy performance worked to unnerve the viewers and make them feel the chaotic, rebellious nature of the characters.
KCP’s production of American Idiot directly engaged everyone in the room like few other musicals, contributing to its resounding success. A truly captivating performance, American Idiot is a production that challenged the creativity and ingenuity of everyone involved.