Brought to the stage by director Michael Mayer, the man behind 2006’s surprise Broadway hit Spring Awakening, the stage-musical version of Green Day’s American Idiot is currently enjoying a trial run in the band’s native East Bay, and early indicators were promising: Ushers in the Berkeley Repertory Theater handed out earplugs before the show — what is this, My Bloody Valentine? — and one kid in the lobby even had a mohawk.
Better still were the charmingly didactic essays in the playbill (“Punk rock was born in the late ’70s out of a reaction to the status quo…” Got it, Grandpa?). And not to spoil anything, but by the end of the 90-minute performance, the stage had been witness to half a dozen chugged beers, a couple of joints, several syringes of heroin, one drug-related suicide, one O.D., and one bout of very realistic-looking sex on a futon. Mamma Mia, that’s our kind of musical!
So how was it? Well, the Green Day songs (everything off 2004’s American Idiot plus two B-sides, four tracks from this year’s 21st Century Breakdown, and one unearthed ballad Armstrong wrote for his wife when he was 19) sound as anthemic as ever, if a little showtuned-up. And lead actor John Gallagher, Jr. (playing Jimmy, the “Jesus of Suburbia”) sounds enough like Billie Joe Armstrong to not be distracting.
But Mayer has added only the barest of plots to the conceptual muddle that was the original album: Jimmy leaves suburbia for the big city, falls in love, gets hooked on dope, hits rock bottom, and ultimately flees back home. One of his buddies goes to Iraq and loses a leg; the other is a loser who doesn’t go anywhere at all. The whole time a bank of TVs plays clips presumably depicting American idiocy: Slurpees and Twinkies at 7-11, night-vision bombing runs from the Middle East, Family Guy. It’s all supposed to represent the hollowness of the American dream, or how life sucks, or something. Anyway. Fight the power!
Musicals are inevitably kind of corny, but this one could have used at least a little more bite. It’s easy to imagine the kids a few blocks away at 924 Gilman Street, the famed Berkeley punk club where Green Day got their start, laughing at Idiot the way East Villagers in the ’90s mocked Rent-as watered down and cheesed up. The dialogue (what little there is) is all, “What the fuck?” this and “Motherfucker!” that-a 13-year-old Wicked fan’s idea of punk rebellion. And with tickets more expensive than seats at an actual Green Day show, there really doesn’t seem much point.
Although in fairness, the production should get credit for at least one bold choice: The show’s lead sponsor is Levi’s…but Jimmy’s jeans are not. Now that’s punk.