Minutes before the official opening of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s staged rendition of American Idiot, the members of Green Day were their usual affable selves. “I had no concerns,” Billie Joe Armstrong said to sum up his feelings about adapting the band’s rock opera disc for the stage. “I was interested and flattered to meet [director] Michael Mayer. We were floored by Spring Awakening [the 2006 Tony-winning rock musical Mayer helmed], and so there were no worries. I think this is a broader version of the album. We started with Johnny, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername, and Mayer added Will, Tunny and Heather. Your heart goes out to them.”
Even so, Mike Dirnt confessed that he won’t be reading upcoming reviews of the show. “You can’t or else they effect how you feel about your own work,” he explained. “I learned the hard way.”
“You won’t need those,” Tré Cool advised a patron reaching for the last three earplugs in a bucket dangling from an usher.
Tré’s right. Berkley Rep’s intimate 595-seat Roda Theatre modification of American Idiot is a quieter but no less intense variation on Green Day’s arena-rocking blockbuster: The vocals from the 19-member cast are more prominent, and the lyrics more easily understood. Yet the music coming from the clearly visible five-member band that’s sometimes joined by three string players is arguably more raw than the album’s radio-friendly production: It’s got the looseness of a neighborhood garage band, and the cast strike that happy medium between raw rock & roll expression and over-enunciated Broadway slickness. The complex vocal harmonies that come together during the show’s heightened moments reflect socially isolated individuals united by war-afflicted malaise.
The story itself is skeletal. Like the album, the musical focuses on Johnny, who abandons backwater suburbia for the proverbial big city represented here as Jingletown, USA. There he meets his African-American punk-rock girlfriend Whatsername, who, like Johnny, soon becomes a junkie thanks to St. Jimmy, a combination dark angel/drug pusher. Their plight is mirrored by Tunny, who enlists in the army, and Heather, who becomes pregnant with the child of apathetic Will. All six characters soon become slaves to their situations as 34 TVs hung on the impressionistic and impressively tall set flash interchangeable news, entertainment, and advertising clips with the hypnotic assault of dance-floor strobes.
A few poetic soliloquies introduce characters and signal shifts in mood, but American Idiot offers no actual dialogue. The production adheres to the album, here fleshed out by B side “Too Much Too Soon,” compilation cut “Favorite Son,” and four tracks from the band’s current 21st Century Breakdown, including recent singles “Know Your Enemy” and “21 Guns.” During the show’s previously unreleased hit-worthy ballad “When It’s Time,” written by a 19-year-old Armstrong for his future wife Adrienne, Tony-winning actor John Gallagher, Jr. sits on a bed and accompanies himself on acoustic guitar while his heroin-blasted girlfriend lies listlessly beside him, trapped in limbo between dreams and death.
Rather than complex plotting, Mayers offers spectacle and symbols closer in spirit to the abstraction of both traditional opera and rock & roll than to the glitz of typical Broadway musicals: A bed rolls away and glowing yellow lines suggest a 7-11 parking lot as the chorus wails “Jesus of Suburbia” while thrashing about in military precision. “Dreaming, I was only dreaming,” a quartet of wounded soldiers somberly croon 21st Century Breakdown‘s “Before the Lobotomy” while lying in hospital beds as a veiled woman in Muslim garb floats above the stage, removing her blue robes to reveal a pink stomach-bearing ensemble reminiscent of I Dream of Jeannie. That’s as lavish as this street-conscious, mass-media-minded presentation gets.
After a standing ovation from a crowd that included the band, their friends and family, 21st Century Breakdown producer Butch Vig, and Amadeus actor Tom Hulce (one of American Idiot‘s producers), the cast and audience celebrated in a sprawling party that spread out through the building, onto the patio, and into Berkeley Rep’s neighboring Thrust Theatre. A circus-like atmosphere prevailed, courtesy of new wave dance classics, Rock Band karaoke, vodka snow cones, vintage pinball, and a stylist offering free haircuts to the brave. Toward the end of the evening, she relinquished her clippers to Billie Joe Armstrong, who improvised an impressive Mohawk on a willing victim. Amidst these festivities, Armstrong’s sister and mother, Anna and Ollie Armstrong, provided emotional back story to the triumphant event.
“There are lines in the songs that specifically refer to our hometown or to our dad,” Anna elaborated, alluding in part to “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Armstrong’s confrontation of the trauma inflicted by their father’s death when he and Anna were 10 and 14. “The show is particularly meaningful for us because we know where it comes from.”
• Green Day’s “American Idiot” Musical: Meet the Show’s Rocker Cast
• The Birth of Green Day’s “American Idiot” Musical
• Billie Joe Armstrong On the Fire and Freedom Behind “21st Century Breakdown”