Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Bitch of Living

September 30, 2009

John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Vincent
Photo: mellopix.com/Berkeley Rep Theater 2009

With teenage angst a perennial favorite on Broadway, the interest in adapting Green Day’s American Idiot for the stage would be a no-brainer. So it has come to pass in Berkeley, that the kings of easy-access punk have returned to their hometown crowd for the world premiere of a musical bearing the same moniker as their classic recording. It’s a show whose collaborators are heavily steeped in virtually every successful Broadway musical on themes of young adult angst in the last decade. You’ve got writer/director Michael Mayer and John Gallagher, Jr who were two of the forces behind Spring Awakening. Then there’s the very talented Rebecca Naomi Jones seen most recently in Passing Strange both in New York and Berkeley. Add to this a cast that’s a veritable who’s who of actors having appeared at some point in Rent and it would seem a recipe for assured success. Needless to say, American Idiot has lots going for it including ample energy and visual excitement. Now, if it only had a narrative. The thing about shows like Spring Awakening and Rent was that somewhere in their heart of hearts they had input from the likes Henri Murger and Frank Wedekind.

Instead the authors of American Idiot, Michael Mayer and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, begin with much more humble substrate. What story there is focuses on three friends, Johnny, played by John Gallagher Jr, Will and Tunny. After a childhood filled with lots of television and early 21st century bad news, they go their separate ways. Will unexpectedly becomes a father and stays home. Tunny joins the military and is off to the Middle East. Meanwhile Johnny heads off to New York to pursue rock and roll dreams, and promptly gets a girlfriend and a drug problem. There are plenty of cliches that follow from this, all of which are partially explored over the next 90 minutes before the testosterone engines driving the show reunite. There are few if any surprises, which is a shame for something that looks so attractive. The stage is walled off by giant poster-plastered walls with numerous video screens set within them. The band is onstage and the cast is dressed in a friendly California punk way that you’d expect. Actors climb scaffolding and mog rock their little hearts out in various states of well-meaning undress.

And as with Green Day's original recording, everyone is reaching high for something as close to a rock opera as possible. There is virtually no dialog between the musical numbers in the show, which are taken mostly form the recording of American Idiot as well as the band’s subsequent release, 21st Century Breakdown. But 15 or 16 rock songs, (or 15 or 16 arias for that matter), no matter how well constructed or linked, don’t make an opera, much less compelling musical theater without some fleshing out of the drama in between the songs. The verse-chorus-verse structure leads to a kind of redundancy and a lack of forward motion in the piece at times that can be frustrating. The songs are great. I just felt that they needed a little more rethinking and restructuring to create a unified piece instead of an elaborately staged concert with lots of extras. But this is likely only the beginning for American Idiot and the things it does have will probably spurn further work on the show, and I certainly hope it returns further down the line as a fuller, more satisfying existence.


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