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Theater review: 'American Idiot' at Berkeley Rep

October 9, 2009 |  4:01 pm

Americ id 1

Attention, everyone. We have a theatrical bulletin coming in: Music videos have just made an artistic breakthrough. And the form has gone live.

The site of this unexpected and, yes, rather loud development is Berkeley Rep, where “American Idiot,” the show based on Green Day’s multi-platinum 2004 concept album, is having its world premiere.

Directed by Michael Mayer, who won a Tony for his staging of “Spring Awakening,” this visually mesmerizing, dramatically sketchy production melds latter-day mainstream punk with cutting-edge musical theater craft. (Sorry, groupies: Green Day’s vocalist-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool aren’t performing, but clearly that’s not deterring any of you from lining up for tickets for this multimedia celebration, which has been extended one last time through Nov. 15.)

Kinetically entertaining in a way that intentionally reflects the shallow, media-saturated culture the album rails against, “American Idiot” (the musical) does what rock bands have set out to do from the beginning — lay down a style that defines a new zeitgeist.

The themes of alienation and anomie are tried and true, but their means of expression are always being updated. This new concert-musical hybrid, which stars Tony Award-winner John Gallagher Jr. from “Spring Awakening” as a modern-day druggy rebel without a cause, grapples with what those who have come of age in post-9/11 America are up against in a manner at once aesthetically dazzling and socio-politically stark. 

This particular dystopia harks back to “the recent past,” when cable pundits were jawing about Saddam Hussein, and weapons of mass destruction were as real to many as Friday night takeout. Video monitors spanning scenic designer Christine Jones’ modern wasteland backdrop multiply the televised flotsam and jetsam with paranoid news alerts. George W. Bush’s infamous “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” echoes ominously into the national void.

Americ id 2The book for “American Idiot”— if you accept the conceit that these loosely tied wisps of narrative constitute a book — is a collaboration between Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics, and Mayer, who extrapolated and expanded them into a story collage. This approach preserves the generalized ache and subjective mystery of the songs, which have been beautifully orchestrated and arranged by musical supervisor Tom Kitt, the Tony Award-winning composer of “Next to Normal.”

The lyricism of “Passing Strange,” another innovative rock musical that had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, may be missing here, but Armstrong gives voice to authentic anguish. Images and actions suggested if not spelled out by Green Day’s music, which also included a few tracks from the group’s latest (and even more critically esteemed) release “21st Century Breakdown,” are teased and redeployed. Wisely, the creators avoid a literalism that this source material, an extended generational cri de coeur more than a rock opera, couldn’t support.

On the downside, the figures never become characters, even to the degree that they do in “The Who’s Tommy” or “Hair.” This includes Gallagher in the central role of Johnny, the self-described Jesus of  Suburbia,  who journeys from the strip-mall wasteland of “Jingletown” to the anonymous big city, where he’s forced to choose (in an admittedly hackneyed way) between the love of Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and the narcotics of St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent).

Gallagher has the slacker charm and seductive snarl of a rock god, yet his Johnny is more a figment of lyrical preoccupations than a knowable personality. He does fill us in regularly on how he feels, in such songs as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” with the haunting refrain “I walk alone” pounding away with a mesmerizing monotony. But as the 90-minute piece unfolds, it would be nice to be acquainted with him as something more than a victim of dead-end choice and his own aimless self-pity.

Passive types make problematic heroes and anti-heroes, yet dithering is a sin of the masses. This is why Gallagher’s Johnny stays in our affections despite his self-indulgent inertia.

A similar sympathy is provoked by the two other male stragglers, who take divergent paths on their confounding quests: Will (a pungent though underutilized Michael Esper) is marooned on the couch, pleading for painkillers for an existential migraine, which has intensified now that his girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber), is pregnant. And Tunny (whose role, usually played by Matt Caplan, was performed by Ben Thompson Wednesday night) heads off to a faraway war with all the bodily horror and guilty agony that implies.

Mayer does an astonishing job of keeping everything in fluid motion. Helping out in this regard is choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose work goes high-wire in the “Extraordinary Girl” sequence, in which Tunny, hallucinating under morphine in a military hospital, dreams up a burka-clad beauty (Christina Sajous) who leads him into Peter Pan-like maneuvers. Just as with “Spring Awakening,” which was also buoyed by Kevin Adams’ head-spinning lighting, Mayer’s direction adeptly synthesizes a variety of singular talents into a coherent vision.

There were some technical snafus at the reviewed performance, but they didn’t obscure the ingenuity of Darrel Maloney’s video and projection design, which views the workaday world through a surreal lens.


But the entire physical production establishes its own universe. Jones’ set, with its hanging car, metal scaffolding and minimal Salvation Army furnishings, has the flair of a postmodern installation, with the added benefit of remarkable flexibility. Andrea Lauer’s costumes zigzag between the Berkeley underground chic of the principals (reflecting Green Day’s own Bay Area roots) and a full spectrum of colorful quick-change attire for the ensemble, including sequined get-ups for the women.

The onstage band, conducted by keyboardist and musical director Carmel Dean, is visible just enough in the background to enhance our pleasure in their playing. Sound designer Brian Ronan extends the aural palette.

“American Idiot” translates Green Day’s generational angst into a moody theatrical fantasia. If it doesn’t spin an entirely satisfying yarn, its roar is still irresistible, even when the object of protest remains elusive. “Know Your Enemy,” the title of one of the songs taken from “21st Century Breakdown,” means recognizing the idiocy you’ve internalized — and having faith that it’s not the only way to be an American.

-- Charles McNulty


 

Photos: Top: John Gallagher Jr., left, and Tony Vincent. Credit: mellopix.com / Berkeley Repertory Theatre 

Bottom: John Gallagher Jr. Credit: kevinberne.com / Berkeley Repertory Theatre

 

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