For a significant number of Palo Alto High School graduates and their families, the June performances of American Idiot at San Jose's Center for Performing Arts represent more than just an opportunity to see the Green Day musical, which debuted in 2009 at Berkeley Rep before heading to Broadway in 2010. It's a chance to welcome home Alex Nee, who appears poised to become Paly's most famous acting alum since James Franco. After graduating from Paly in 2009, Nee was accepted into the theater program at Northwestern University. Last year, while still a 20-year-old junior, Nee was tapped to play Johnny, the Tony Award-winning musical's leading man.
For Nee, who's been grinding out eight shows a week of Idiot since last fall, returning to his stomping grounds as a professional actor rather than just another college kid home for the holidays is "definitely weird," he says from Disney World, a reward for six days of engagements in Florida. "But getting to perform with this show in San Jose is special, so I'll be filled with all the usual emotions -- nervous, excited, sweaty."
Alyssa DiPalma is Whatsername opposite Alex Nee's Johnny in American Idiot. Photo by Turner Rouse, Jr.
Nee is the youngest member of the Idiot cast (he celebrated his 21st birthday while touring in the U.K.), but that's a role he's actually pretty familiar with. "In fifth grade I was in a Foothill College production of Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. It was my first semi-professional show, and I got to be around all of these amazing adults, who were doing what I loved doing for a living. The fact that the play and material was so taboo for someone my age made everything that much more appealing."
As for a lot of young actors, the playwright proved a major influence. "I fell in love with Durang," he says, "and subsequently writers like Albee, Mamet, and Shepard. They taught me about irony and realism, and how to love even the darkest, most twisted characters." Other influences were closer to home. "Throughout middle and high school, I always sort of looked up to the older, cooler kids because, you know, being young for my grade I always wanted to be older. Elan Maier was sort of that older brother figure for a lot of that time. And his work on stage was just so exciting. He taught me what it was like to be unabashed, unafraid and just plain weird."
Nee also credits his teachers, from Jeanie Smith at Jordan Middle School (Go Jaguars!) to theatre teachers Kristen Lo and Kathleen Woods and vocal teacher Michael Najar at Paly (Go Vikings!). "I really look back fondly on playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henderson in The Laramie Project and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof," he says. "These roles all stretched me in important ways."
In 2009, Nee channeled his inner Tevye for a Palo Alto High School production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Anne Peterson Barry
He also learned from his flops. "My biggest disaster was as Billy in Anything Goes," he recalls. "I just couldn't sing it at the time. I begged to have the keys transposed down on some songs, but Mr. Najar wouldn't hear of it. I cracked on the same note almost every night. It was just embarrassing. Up to that point, I had sort of been coasting along. I mean I was taking classes, but acting was still a hobby for me. I was like, 'Oh, I don't really need to work at this, I'm getting good roles'. But when I let myself down, that's when I really tried to kick it into gear, to take voice lessons seriously and learn the mechanics of the business. By forcing me to try, Mr. Najar made me get better; now I could sing that role no problem. It was a good wakeup call."
Not that any of that, or even the additional three years at Northwestern, totally prepared him for Idiot. In fact, things didn't really click for him, Nee says, until about a month into the run, in Edinburgh. "I had never done an eight-show week before. That in and of itself is just a beast. It's like working out; it takes a while to build up the stamina, both vocally and physically, to trim the fat and get into that well-oiled-machine phase." Getting comfortable with the pace of the road and the role, Nee says, allowed him to have fun outside of the show, as well as be completely in the moment on stage. "That's a really nice thing about having such a long run," he says. "Instead of getting stale, it stays fresh because you can respond to whatever is happening on stage. So, if something is a little off, suddenly there's a totally new moment to explore."
As an alum, Nee returned to Paly in 2010 to inhabit Detective Roy G. Biv in Grey: The Color of Blood and Romance, one of several plays produced during a 24-hour marathon of student-written-and-performed pieces. Photo by Anne Peterson Barry
Those moments will all come to an end this summer when Idiot finally concludes its tour. "Right now my plan is to walk at graduation this June, then finish my degree over the summer," Nee says. "At least that's the plan." But the question, spoken or not, on everyone at Paly's mind is, Does Alex Nee, their Alex Nee, have a shot at achieving the notoriety of James Franco? "I definitely try to avoid that kind of thinking," Nee says, "but it's hard to not let it creep in sometimes."
American Idiot runs from June 4-9, 2013, at the Center for Performing Arts in San Jose. For tickets, visit broadwaysanjose.com.