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American Idiot

Style over Substance

Upon walking into Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre to see the world premiere of the rock opera “American Idiot", you will get a cordial high decibel warning in the form of ear plugs. Just to be on the safe side. Based on the 2004 multi-platinum concept album by punk-rock trio (and Bay Area natives) Green Day, “American Idiot” spares us the adenoidal baying of frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, as well as the manic, three-chord conniptions that would identify the band well past its post-adolescent rise to fame.

Suffice it to say that despite a 19-person cast (helmed by Michael Mayer, who directed the Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening” on Broadway), a live band, a frenetic punk-rock ethos, and a story that progresses at breakneck speed, this cautionary gesture is perhaps unnecessary. Green Day, at least in its current incarnation, is less clamorous thrasher punk than razzle-dazzle musical theatre.

Mayer’s hyperkinetic direction is perfectly aligned with the politically charged concept album it brings to life, following characters like the Jesus of Suburbia and a platoon of jaded wastrels languishing on the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The album is perfect for musical theatre; given Green Day’s adult contemporary rendition of punk music, all the grandiose thrasher ditties (which at times, bring to mind the Clash) and piano ballads play well with the spectacle.

Armstrong, who created the book for the musical along with Mayer (including all of the songs off the eponymous album, as well as some new tracks from Green Day’s recent 21st Century Breakdown), provides a loose, angst-driven narrative around a twenty-something layabout named Johnny (played poignantly by an impetuous John Gallagher, Jr.) and his two best friends, Will the stoner (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Matt Caplan), who joins up with the Army in an attempt to evade the clutches of suburban nihilism.

It’s an unhealthy trifecta through adulthood that’s set in the screwy agitprop era of George W. Bush’s presidency. While the subject matter comes off as a little passé (take lines like “Now everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia,” which is delivered without the slightest sense of ironical detachment or self-awareness in the show’s bombastic opener), the energy of the cast and even the glamour of the watered-down, Hot Topic punk ethos help usher the show along at a delightful velocity.

The emotional nexus of the story is the friendship of the three main characters, but for the most part, this is a piece that is about Johnny’s descent into the circle of hell that is adulthood. Johnny decides to leave the suburbs for the excitement of the city, where he meets and falls in love with a gorgeous punk goddess (Whatshername, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, of “Passing Strange” fame), only to succumb to the temptations of a drug dealer named St. Jimmy (deftly portrayed by Tony Vincent) and collapse beneath the weight of his addiction.

In the meantime, Will gets high, watches TV, and weathers the heckling of his pregnant girlfriend; and Tunny ships out to the Middle East, in search of a meaningful future (or maybe just an easy plot turn). While the music and the eye candy make up for the incoherent narrative, there is no credible reason for Will and Tunny to be present, or for us to care about them. More often than not, the characters are ciphers that become more and more difficult to rationalize or differentiate, and their believability suffers immensely under the swaggering showmanship of Johnny and his lady love.

The entire show is a menagerie of largely disconnected, though often beautifully orchestrated and choreographed, scenes that are meagerly strung together by the very vague notion of post-millennial American disillusionment. The lyrics and dialogue are so obviously secondary to the plot, the stakes and cathartic possibility so dulled by the spectacle, and the extreme swing between indignation and apathy so pronounced that it’s hard not to roll your eyes and feel utterly impervious to the plight of our three whiny rakes.

While there is little compelling conflict and not a great deal of transformation or sense of true progression in the characters’ situations (exemplified by the final avowal, which comes across as anti-climactic after the standing ovation that followed the penultimate song), the performance is eminently watchable. Steven Hoggert’s flailing punk choreography oozes the desperation of the characters, while a multi-tier stage, full of concrete platforms and walls plastered with flat-screen TVs and smarmy advertisements, is completely engrossing in its versatility.

Several moving scenes also ensue, such as an aerial dance sequence featuring Christina Sajous as Tunny’s seraphic army nurse. Admittedly, the rock opera conceit is often rendered as pompous and messy, but I couldn’t help tapping my feet to the music, which retains some of the shambolic verve of early Green Day. Additionally, the music’s sense of urgency and energy lends itself well to composer Tom Kitt’s finger-snappingly melodic arrangements.

My primary issue with the performance is that, like most theatre of the Broadway-lite variety, it relied far too heavily on style rather than substance. Ostensibly, the series of flashing ads and TV clips could have been easily exploited in service of the idea that 21st century Americans are belching along the chute of consumerism, lassitude, and a mass-media clusterfuck. But the denouement simply left me cold and wondering -- what are these characters rebelling against, exactly? “American Idiot” is dispatched with such hyperactivity that I felt shell-shocked upon leaving; not to mention wistful that my own life’s great unanswerable problems can’t be conveniently shoved under the rug and rushed toward resolution, like they were at the end of Act 2.

American Idiot
At Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Runs through November 1st
Tickets: $19 - $95