Three boys grow up together in a working-class suburban town that closely resembles Pinole or Hercules. Will (Michael Esper) impregnates his girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) and spends the next several years sitting on the couch smoking weed. Tunny (Matt Caplan) and Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) take off for the "big city;" Tunny gets seduced by an army television ad and enlists, only to get wounded and spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, while Johnny meets an incredibly hot, fallen woman, and gets addicted to heroin. Extrapolated from the storyline in Green Day's 2004 album American Idiot, it's a teen angst allegory that any thirteen-year-old from suburbia could glom onto. As literature, it's thin. As opera — especially as interpreted by Berkeley Rep director Michael Mayer — it's fantastic.
Mayer collaborated with Green Day to stage American Idiot, and their production stays true to the themes of the album without interpreting the individual songs too literally. The original concept was a punk-rock coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, Jesus of Suburbia (his name is Johnny in this production), journeys away from the boondocks (and his lame step-dad) and encounters two characters, the rebel girl Whatsername and self-annihilating drug dealer St. Jimmy. Theoretically, they each represent a different side of Jesus' subconscious, and he has to thoroughly absorb and then expunge them in order to grow up and be a better person. Undergirding this parable is a larger sociological narrative about the individual versus society: By proclaiming himself a "Jesus of Suburbia," the main character resists becoming a one-dimensional man.
That idea gets amplified tenfold in the stage production, which opens with a montage of TV news clips, sound bites from President Bush, and bits from Family Guy, shown on multiple TV screens. Otherwise, the backdrop looks like a pop-art version of Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street warehouse: images of Marilyn Monroe and Rosie the Riveter collide with flashy anti-war posters, and punk show fliers for bands like Social Distortion and the Minutemen. Beneath this newspaper collage lies a shallow stage where ensemble members bounce on mattresses or push each other around in shopping carts. The tall, labyrinthine set, with its winding metal staircase and scaffolding tilted at ninety degrees, could be a representation of Johnny's mind.
American Idiot the musical repurposes all thirteen tracks from American Idiot the album, which a few added songs — including four from Green Day's new album 21st Century Breakdown. Choreographer Steven Hoggett took the lyrics and ran with them, allowing the characters onstage to act out everything that's implied. The lonely ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" plays when Johnny bids his hometown good-bye, with the other ensemble members slinking behind him in their hoodies. "Give Me Novacaine" — arguably the most powerful number in this production — accompanies the first love scene between Johnny and Whatsername and closes with a battlefield scene starring Tunny and his fellow infantrymen. St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent) enters from atop the giant staircase, tatted up and mohawked to look like a young Marilyn Manson.
Despite its deficiencies in narrative, American Idiot has some incredibly dramatic moments, some of which push at the edges of what's appropriate in musical theater. Army posterchild Joshua Henry emerges in tighty-whities that barely conceal his centerfold bod — it's no wonder that Tunny can't resist the wet-dreamy heroism fantasy that will ultimately be his undoing. Following a very hot sex scene, Johnny and Whatsername decide to shoot heroin and get tangled up in the rubber cord that they use as a tourniquet. A line of wounded soldiers with IV bags creates another provocative tableau.
No matter what you think of Green Day personally, there's little doubt that this East Bay band will ultimately be canonized. The score for American Idiot is anthemic, especially when interpreted by a nine-piece rock band. Songs such as "Jesus of Suburbia" and "Homecoming" have several subdivisions that propel the story forward but also create space for interesting vocal orchestrations. At several moments in the album, Billie Joe Armstrong breaks away from his band and sings over an acoustic guitar or piano; in the rock musical, these parts become character arias.
If there is a moral to American Idiot, it's nebulous at best. Will's baby mama eventually ditches him to do right for herself; Johnny loses track of Whatsername; Tunny is permanently disabled. In proto-Broadway form, it could use some editing. Still, it's a spectacular production, in everything from duplicated TV screens to the chopped automobile dangling from the ceiling. Green Day's music sounds far more sophisticated than Cats, Les Misérables, or Ragtime, and it's certainly better than Rent. With a little tweaking, this play could have enormous staying power — just like the Berkeley punk band that conceived it.
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