Monday, September 7, 2009

Theater Review: American Idiot at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (9/6/2009)

With a five-year gap between the 2004 release of Green Day's multiplatinum American Idiot album and the 2009 debut of the rock opera stage production of the same name, the question of relevance is, well, highly relevant.

Now that the US is eight months into a Democratic administration helmed by the country's first African-American president, do the Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Whatsername and The Extraordinary Girl still resonate as powerfully as they did in the midst of the Bush administration?  On a less esoteric note, do Green Day's songs still pack the same punch without Billie Joe Armstrong's distinctive voice and Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool's driving bass and drums?

At last night's preview night performance of American Idiot, both of these questions were answered with a resounding, fist-pumping "YES!"

The lean 85-minute performance (no intermission), which is premiering at the wonderfully intimate Berkeley Repertory Theatre, brings Green Day's music back to the city that gave the band their punk rock start. A few moments after the curtain rises and a cacaphony of mass media sound bytes sets the tone, the cast—trapped in the misery of their lives in fictional (and yet not-so-fictional) Jingletown, USA—launches into the title song, shouting that they "don't want to be an American idiot" for the heavens to hear.

In the space of that one song, any doubts about the quality of the production and the power of the songs are put to rest. The leads never make the mistake of trying to imitate Armstrong, instead letting their powerful voices send the songs rocking through the theater while advancing the storyline.
The songs of the American Idiot stage production center on the tracks from the original album plus "two B sides from the European release and four from the new album [21st Century Breakdown]," including "Know Your Enemy" and a moving performance of "21 Guns."  Idiot director and Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) has skillfully woven togther the songs to create a coherent storyline that is more complete than the one present in Green Day's album.  He also wisely pulls bits and pieces from songs and inserts them as refrains or asides where appropriate instead of slavishly trying to force lyrics and whole songs where they don't fit.

The stories of three friends from Jingletown—Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Tunny (Matt Caplan) and Will (Michael Esper)—are told with a minimum of dialogue as these angry young men struggle to find meaning and intellectual outlets in a world that demands cookie-cutter conformity and obedience.  It could be easy to dismiss the main characters as stereotypical "slacker losers," but showrunners Armstrong and Mayer don't make things that simple. The entire production and particularly the lead actors intentionally bristle with an energy that is the antithesis of a "slacker loser" mentality.

That sense of unchanneled energy and frustration fuels the entire production.  The intensity and emotion that the music requires means that no one will ever be able to phone in their performance; American Idiot demands that both the leads and the ensemble players leave everything they have on the stage.

The performers' efforts are repaid by the positive audience response.  While there were a large number of younger audience members, at least half of the preview performance audience on Sunday night was made up of traditional-age theatergoers and arts patrons.  I wasn't sure how older audience members would react to a punk rock opera that includes a sex scene, drug use, drug paraphernalia and quite a few curse words, but the volume of the applause and the cheers after key songs and during the curtain call made it clear that the production's message had hit home.  The standing ovation for the cast must have been rewarding for Armstrong, who had ducked into his audience seat, disguised in a dark hoodie, just before the house lights went down.

American Idiot is in previews from now through September 13.  The production's regular run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre lasts through October 11.  Ticket prices range from $25 to $78.

All images © Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.


  1. "I wasn't sure how older audience members would react to a punk rock opera that includes a sex scene, drug use, drug paraphernalia and quite a few curse words"

    What, did you miss the fact that RENT played for almost 15 years on broadway?

    The show was great-- I can't wait to see it on b'way--great summary.

  2. LOL -- good point. I attended a concert series of highly experimental music earlier this year and a large number of the older patrons would duck out or leave after intermission. I absolutely loved seeing the opposite happen after this preview night though. So many patrons stayed to talk with the cast and give them wonderfully positive feedback. What night did you attend Grimwomyn?