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'American Idiot' hits the Underground

Matias Valero, who plays St. Jimmy in the rock opera "American Idiot" during a rehearsal at The Underground Monday night. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 5
A scene from the play "American Idiot" during rehearsal Monday night at The Underground. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Drew Autio, who plays the character, "Favorite Son" in the rock opera "American Idiot," sings during rehearsal at The Underground Monday night. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Members of the cast of "American Idiot" perform during a rehearsal Monday night at The Underground. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Meghan Niegoda, in the role of "Christina" sings during a rehearsal of the rock opera "American Idiot." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

It's been about a decade since Michael Hasenmueller, his father and his brother took a road trip from Eau Claire, Wis., to Chicago so his brother could audition for "The Voice."

Hasenmueller claimed space in the backseat of a Pontiac Vibe. The driver's side window didn't roll down, so he was on toll booth duty, he recently recalled. Otherwise, he settled in with an old-school CD player and queued up his brother's copy of Green Day's "American Idiot."

Within that disc he found music unlike anything he had heard — specifically the language, which included more swear words than allowed in his home, he said.

"It made me feel kinda bada--, as a 10-year-old," said Hasenmueller, who plays the military-bound Tunny in a production of "American Idiot" that opens at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 at The Underground. The rock opera was build from the Grammy Award-winning album with themes that lean anti-war and pro-human and offered criticism of the early-2000s political scene.

Ten years later, the things that first attracted Hasenmueller to the album are still there — but it's deeper. It's not just a dip into salty language, it's a politically charged album about unrest.

"Now, more than ever, that speaks to me because of the situation in our country," he said. "Right now, in our country, we have more American idiots than ever before. It's ridiculous how absent-minded people can be."

MAKING OF AN ALBUM/SHOW

Green Day was, arguably, past its prime by the time Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates began working on "American Idiot." The North Cali-bred punk band's breakout album "Dookie" was long gone, they had already released an album of greatest hits and relationships had imploded. According to a 2005 cover story about Green Day in Rolling Stone magazine, Armstrong started building around dissatisfaction with the George W. Bush administration, the culture of reality television and good old-fashioned feelings.

"We were in the studio and watching the journalists embedded with the troops, and it was the worst version of reality television," Armstrong said in the article. "Switch the channel, and it's Nick (Lachey) and Jessica (Simpson). Switch and it's 'Fear Factor.' Switch, and people are having surgery to look like Brad Pitt."

Years after "American Idiot" won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album, Armstrong joined with Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening") to turn the album into a rock opera. It was an idea that was beyond anything Green Day's frontman ever expected, he told the New York Times in a 2009 interview.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "But that's what I love about it. When people see it, it's going to be my wildest dream."

The premise: lifelong friends with a raging case of suburban angst, Johnny and Tunny, set out for the real world, where the former finds a woman and drugs, the latter finds the military. Meanwhile, back at home, Will has a pregnant girlfriend.

It fared well with critics across the country.

The New York Times called it a "pulsating portrait of wasted youth that involves all the standard genre conventions ... only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution, the show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I've seen on Broadway this season."

"American Idiot" played for more than a year on Broadway and won a handful of major awards.

NOWADAYS

There is a very early-2000s problem with Amber Burns' "American Idiot" CD. It skips, she said, and she can no longer get through some of the heavy hitters, like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" or "Wake Me Up When September Ends."

Burns, a go-to choreographer for both the Duluth Playhouse and Renegade Theater Company, is a long-time Green Day fan who relished the idea of choreographing "American Idiot." When she asked Playhouse staffer Robert Lee who was directing the show, he said "Why don't you direct it," Burns recalled.

"I was like, 'OK! Let's do this,' " she said.

The show has no dialogue, so every movement has to tell the story. Expect lots of patterns and motion to clarify the sometimes vague lyrics.

"I wanted to make sure the story got across as much as it can," she said.

As she has prepared to stage the show, Burns has developed a new relationship with the album — behind just liking the beat, as she did in high school.

"Even if you can't relate to the exact situation, it's about these kids going off and making mistakes and being put through trials and errors and realizing what's really meaningful in life — making mistakes is part of the journey and defines you as a person," she said. "Even though it's awful, you should never forget, it made you who you are today. That reaches me."

Brian Burns, who is married to Amber Burns, is a member of Renegade Theater Company's improv troupe. He tends to only perform in theatrical productions that mean something to him. "American Idiot," he said, does.

Burns first heard the album as a high school student. and the themes still resonate with him.

"In a completely different way, it's very appropriate," he said. "We're still at war, the country is still majorly politically divided. I think it's a powerful piece.

"It's one of those shows where it feels like there is going to be an explosion at any minute. It's on pins and needles. That's kind of where the country is right now."

If you go

What: "Green Day's American Idiot"

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2; Plays 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Feb. 18

Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: $20 at duluthplayhouse.org

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