The rock opera got a punk-and-plaid makeover with the Sept. 16 premiere of American Idiot, a rowdy new musical based on Oakland pop-punk group Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name.
The Grammy-award-winning album, which catapulted the band to international stardom, traded the band’s signature four-chord wonders for epic, structurally complex songs detailing the story of Jesus of Suburbia, an anti-hero on a punk rock odyssey from the suburbs to the big city.
The musical, whose run has been extended to Nov. 1 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, was directed by Michael Mayer in collaboration with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong. Aside from writing the lyrics to every song in the production, Armstrong also provided Mayer with creative support.
Mayer is no stranger to gutsy productions. He first made a splash in the theater world with his racy Tony-award winning musical Spring Awakening in 2006.
Like Spring Awakening, which raised eyebrows for its brazen portrayal of teenage sexuality, Mayer’s latest production is not afraid to push the boundaries of the musical theater genre. With a scantily clad cast, copious swearing and a hefty dose of simulated sex and drug use, American Idiot is certainly not Cats or Annie.
It chronicles the exploits of a group of suburban punk rockers dealing with impending adulthood. Frustrated and bored in the fictional city of Jingletown (a nod to the nickname of Oakland’s Fruitvale district, where Green Day has lived and recorded), the friends attempt to reconcile their youthful thirst for rebellion with the pressure they feel to grow up.
As the production unfolds, we watch as the protagonist Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), based on Jesus of Suburbia, leaves the confines of Jingletown for the city, where he meets girlfriend Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and befriends showstopper St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent), a wicked drug dealer who gets him hooked on heroin.
Meanwhile, back at home, Johnny’s friends are not faring much better. His friend Tunny (Matt Caplan) joins the army and is deployed to Iraq — much to the horror of his buddies — eventually getting injured on the battlefield. Will (Michael Esper), the only member of the group to remain in Jingletown, accidentally gets his girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) pregnant, prompting the crowd to cheer with East Bay pride when she walked onstage, belly protruding underneath a shirt that read “I Hella Heart Oakland.”
These stories are told without the use of any dialogue. Instead the cast, backed by an onstage band, rips through song after song, with solos bouncing from character to character. The set is minimalism at its best: a warehouse covered in yellowing punk fliers and posters, with several television screens mounted high on the walls. Sometimes the screens are blank, and sometimes they show news footage or footage of the cast members themselves — American Idol even makes a brief appearance. Ratty couches and beds are scattered around the stage, along with metal scaffolding and stairs, which cast members climb during musical numbers. There’s even a scene where Tunny and his dream girl float above the stage on wires, engaged in an aerial pas-de-deux while he is heavily drugged in an army hospital.
All in all, American Idiot succeeds in capturing punk rock ethos and suburban ennui onstage. If you can accept the unusual pairing of theatrical vibrato singing with the fuzzy distorted guitars, it is easy to enjoy the lively adaptation of Green Day’s record. Despite the fact that there is something inauthentic and forced about attempting to translate the grimy spirit of punk rock into a musical, the cast is talented enough to pull it off. They are an ethnically diverse group — a refreshing feat in both the world of musical theatre and world of punk — and, as evidenced in the playbill, many of them are big alternative-music fans themselves (ensemble actor Theo Stockman thanks both the Cure’s Robert Smith and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke in his biography).
If the standing ovation at the end of the show was any indication, Andrew Lloyd Webber, reigning king of the rock opera, may have to watch out. He can have Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus of Suburbia is the new kid in town.