American Idiot blasts from your iPod to the stage

By
September 23, 2009

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.

Green Day—the Grammy Award-winning band comprised of (l to r) Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt. (Phil Mucci)

Green Day—the Grammy Award-winning band comprised of (l to r) Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt. (Phil Mucci)

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.

The band at rehearsal: original members Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt connect with Tony Award-winners Michael Mayer and Tom Kit. (Carole Litwin)

The band at rehearsal: original members Tré Cool, Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt connect with Tony Award-winners Michael Mayer and Tom Kit. (Carole Litwin)

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.”

John Gallagher, Jr. and Tony Vincent star as Johnny and St. Jimmy. (mellopix.com)

John Gallagher, Jr. and Tony Vincent star as Johnny and St. Jimmy. (mellopix.com)

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.


American Idiot blasts from your iPod to the stage was published on September 23, 2009 in Features and tagged with ,

Print this page Print this page

  • Peter Strascina

    Interesting that your last paragraph noted ALW and JC SUPERSTAR, because Tony Vincent starred in the last revival of that show on Broadway a few years ago (Judas– another tempter of ill repute). Sir Lloyd Webber himself cast Tony in that role and has been so impressed with him that he took him along as one of his Broadway stars when he did “Andrew Lloyd Webber Presents…”, in Beijing and Shanghai, a cultural exchange deal whose purpose was to introduce ALW’s music to the people of China. A TV audience of more than a billion people saw that production!

    Vincent must strike just the right chord with the Brits, because he starred for 3 years on London’s West End in Queen’s rock musical, “We Will Rock You”– the lead part of the Freddie Mercury character. Vincent was the only American in the cast, which led to a performance fronting Queen at Buckingham Palace for Her Majesty’s Jubilee 50th anniversary on the throne.

    This new show makes “Rent” seem tame and not very interesting, but that was after all a previous generation (Tony Vincent also starred on Broadway in “Rent”, as well as on the A-Company National Tour).

    Thanks for reading this… P.

  • http://healthinsurancecrm.com/ crm

    Ive tryed to watch her show, I cant get past the first ten minuets.the words “dumbing down of America comes to mind” I stoped watching AI because of her.