Theater review: ‘American Idiot’ an energetic journey

The lead actor John Gallagher, Jr., although looking more Jay Kay than Billie Joe, puts 110% into his role as the despondent teen looking to escape suburbia.

The world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
In Review

American Idiot

2.5 out of 5 stars
2.5 out of 5 stars - 'Comme ci, comme ça'
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Michael Mayer
Music by Green Day
www.berkeleyrep.org
Review by
American Idiot - Green Day at Berkeley Rep
The world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

UPDATE: American Idiot – I got it wrong, way wrong

Near the end of the highly energetic musical ‘American Idiot’ the forever, eternally, always, in perpetuity, never ending, f-you, angst ridden Johnny (superb John Gallagher, Jr.) recounts how his parents said he’d never amount to anything. But, he boasts, he did one better and, instead, amounted to nothing. Today’s rebels apparently march to a different beat box.

It’s one thing to be a rebel. It’s another to be just a spoiled whiner.

Unfortunately, despite the energy and impressive direction on display in this much-hyped production, the lead character is so devoid of purpose other than his contempt for everything in his suburban life—family, friends, girlfriend, desk job, war—that it’s hard to feel anything but slightly annoyed when the curtain drops.

Still, ‘American Idiot’ has several things going for it. The aforementioned energy is infectious, especially during the opening. Actors jump around, whoop it up, leap off objects, smash televisions, and, of course, punk out. Scaffolding is pushed over and cleverly transforms into a bus. A high wire act with an angel floating above hospital beds during “Extraordinary Girl” delivers the wow factor.

Tony Award-winner John Gallagher, Jr. stars in the world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Tony Award-winner John Gallagher, Jr. stars in the world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

I liked a lot of it initially. It was hard not to smile and soak in the spectacle that included flat panels televisions littered across a cityscape, multi-level 9-person rock band, projection images and the punky grit of Green Day’s ultimate concept album. The ingredients are mostly here.

Much like a punk concert, the format is straightforward: song, is followed by song, with brief moments of dialog in between. At about 80 minutes running time, the show has a crisp and rapid flow.

The lead actor John Gallagher, Jr., although looking more Jay Kay than Billie Joe, puts 110% into his role as the despondent teen looking to escape suburbia. His intensity scorches the stage. Scowls and rage have never been so effectively emoted. Ditto for his dancing, riffing and singing.

Another standout is the punk rock freedom fighter St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Half shaved head, tattoos, leather, together with his lanky movements create many interesting moments as he fans the flames of Johnny’s rage.

However, ultimately, contradictions abound with American Idiot the musical.

As musical theater, punk loses its edge when sung by a 20-person ensemble. Raw rage and emotion are diluted when kids are jumping around in Levi’s. At times, the stage looks like a GAP ad crossed with an award show dance bit. The hardcore message can get lost. Try to picture a musical version of U2’s album War from 1983. Would group dancing and acrobatics accentuate the rage and violence of, say, Sunday Bloody Sunday?

To be fair, some ensemble pieces do work well, such as Are We The Waiting, 21 Guns and the opening number.

(l to r) John Gallagher, Jr. and Tony Vincent star as Johnny and St. Jimmy in the world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
(l to r) John Gallagher, Jr. and Tony Vincent star as Johnny and St. Jimmy in the world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Still, Green Day’s music carries the day—in a diluted, karaoke sort of way. Given that the production is mostly a song-by-song reproduction, without the star power of the original band, I’m somewhat confused as to the point though.

My biggest issue is the relentlessly, uncompromising nihilistic tone (and maybe this is a compliment really).

In between songs, Johnny complains about life. It sucks. His family sucks. Girlfriend sucks. Desk job sucks. Friends suck. American sucks too by the way. Good guys don’t wear red, white and blue. The only good thing? Drugs. Lots of them.

Okay, I think I get it. He’s unhappy. Aimless. Upset with his and America’s place in the world.

But what, then, is he fighting (and singing) for?

After an adventurous journey, drug experimentation and partying with the devilish St. Jimmy, would he learn or progress or discover inner truth? No, no, and no.

Perhaps the writers could take a queue from the original rebel, James Dean. In ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ he, too, rebelled against all those around him. But, unlike American Idiot, the rage vs. love proportions were finely balanced. It made him a vulnerable and likable anti-hero. Flawed, but with purpose and a reason to be.

Then again, maybe, I am the embodiment of the suburban lie the show rails about. I’m not exactly the target demographic. Toying with the hard edge of the lead may lessen the resonance with today’s youth. But, I’m not suggesting a Grease fly-in-the-car-bubbles ending here, just something with some message of hope or belief in the spirit of America.

Regardless, in the end, we have a guy who is a self-declared American Idiot, who seems more like a spoiled American Idiot.

American Idiot
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Michael Mayer
Based on the music of Green Day

Noteworthy

  • Days later I still can’t get Green Day’s music out of my head; I heard 21 Guns on Mix 106.5 yesterday heading down 101. Great song
  • In the lobby at the Berkeley Rep check out the wall where you can read and leave your own comments about the show
  • Flying beer alert: front-rowers watch out for beer and other objects
  • The set is high, those in the back may not even be able to see the very top; we were 4 rows back and had to crane slightly to take it all in
  • Regarding loudness, they offer earplugs for those concerned, but I found the volume just right
  • Total song count: 21
  • Will the production move East? It would be exciting, especially given the Bay Area roots of Green Day and Berkeley Rep’s role in launching the show
  • Billie Joe Armstrong has listed his Oakland Upper Rockridge 7,000 sq. ft. home here in the Bay Area for $4.85M; no graffiti, tattoo parlors or St. Jimmy-inspired decor, just tasteful Mediterranean style (and a professional music studio), listed here

What others are saying

SF Chronicle
Theater review: ‘American Idiot’
It isn’t much of a story, more like concepts imposed upon songs proclaiming nihilistic disillusion. But the songs are vivid, dynamic and in some cases pleasantly melodic. And the packaging is so wildly entertaining it’s almost a complete show by itself.

San Jose Mercury News
Review: Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ punk extravaganza makes a white-hot debut
Intensely directed from start to finish, the relentless adrenaline rush of the piece makes its rare moments of quiet hit home that much harder. Indeed, the “Homecoming” number is so resonant, it feels like a finale when it’s not. But these are merely quibbles in a 95-minute punk extravaganza that, as the song goes, explodes in your heart like a hand grenade.

Oakland Tribune
Harrington: Music loses its edge in Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ play
Unless you’re a Berkeley Repertory subscriber or a lover of light-rock musicals, there’s no reason to see “American Idiot” on stage when you could listen to the album instead. Well, maybe there is one reason: Watching this production makes the original “American Idiot” sound all that much better.

SF Weekly
American Idiot the musical fails to give Green Day’s anthems narrative arc
American Idiot the musical is a safe vision of a rock opera. It lacks a provocative thrust to its tale, but makes up for dull dialogue with impressive production — making the play an antidote to one of the biggest threats American adolescents face: boredom.

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