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'American Idiot': Growing up in overstimulation with Green Day

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 29, 2012 - Amid texting, social networking, video gaming and non-stop music, today’s youth must navigate the passage to adulthood while immersed in a never-ending spectacle of sights and sounds. Against this backdrop of sensory bombardment is a trio of young men finding their way in the musical “American Idiot.

This first national tour of the Tony Award-winning show featuring the music of punk rock band Green Day opens Friday at Peabody Opera House. To the beat of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “21 Guns,” boyhood friends Johnny, Will and Tunny grapple with the quest for meaning, relationships and addiction.

Featured as the embodiment of Johnny's addiction is the character of drug dealer St. Jimmy, played by actor Joshua Kobak. It’s a role that’s been filled by rockers ranging from Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day to Tony Vincent to Melissa Etheridge, who played the part for five days in February 2011.

Kobak talked with the Beacon about the ways in which his St. Jimmy resonates with audience members and how “American Idiot” portrays today’s overwhelming environment. 

Beacon: What kinds of stimuli will audiences experience in “American Idiot?” 

Kobak: When the curtain first goes up there are like 40 screens on the set. And all the ensemble is portraying a whole bunch of different people all the time. They’re not just human set pieces; they’re helping move the scenes from one place to another.

At times throughout the show, there will be three scenes happening at once where the music pertains to all three of them. 

Is there a stage precedent for this kind of simultaneous performance?

Kobak: It goes a long way back to opera and musicals, where they combine several songs at the same time that the audience has already heard.

Like in “West Side Story” when Tony is singing one song, Maria is singing another song and someone else is singing another song, and all three characters are in a similar moment. That has happened throughout history but we’re more attuned to it these days because of our daily lives. So it’s not necessarily any particular play but our society that’s gotten us to this point.

In what way does the audience learn that St. Jimmy is a manifestation of Johnny’s addiction?

Kobak: It’s not revealed in any way where we’re knocking you over the head with a sledgehammer to tell you that. What I love about the show is that it doesn’t assume the audience needs everything spoon-fed to them; it allows them to follow along with the music and lyrics, and the stories are woven throughout them. It assumes the audience is smart.

What has been the response to the musical and to your character?

Kobak: The audiences we’ve played to so far have all been tremendous. I’ve been surprised by how well they’ve received it and how well they’ve gotten the story. I’ve been surprised by their different takes on the show as far as how it affected them. 

They talk to me after the show about how touched they’ve been and what they’ve been touched by. For some, I come across as this evil character, for others I come across as this portal to them getting help. 

Sometimes they’re working through addiction and they thank you for your commitment and your performance. It’s really cool to feel like you’re really helping people. 

Have you been to St. Louis before?

Kobak: Yes. my cousin lives not too far away. I’ve also been through St. Louis two or three times with “Rent,” and I’ve always had a great time there. 

The best motorcycle shop in America is there -- Gateway BMW Motorcycles. Many times I’ve ridden my motorcycle across the country and they’ve always taken great care of me. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.