Saturday, September 12, 2009

"American Idiot" at Berkeley Rep

I can’t really say I ever went through a “punk” phase. In 1978, during my junior year of college, when the Sex Pistols were on their first U.S. tour, my roommate and I ripped up a couple of t-shirts, wrote slightly rough, provocative words on them (“bite” is the only one I remember today), spiked our hair and manipulated safety pins to look like they were piercing our cheeks. Then we walked around campus for an afternoon and enjoyed the stares – this was BYU, after all!

Though the punk sensibility never really fit me (I’m just not that nihilistic), I – like most teenagers – identified with the sense of angst and rage at a larger world of which you’re not yet truly a full participant. I liked the Sex Pistols (in small doses), loved The Clash (still do), but found my own way of dealing with the anger and anxiety of youth.

It is that sense of angst and aimlessness and limited options that provides the backbone for the new musical version of Green Day’s mega-platinum, Grammy-winning punk rock opera “American Idiot” that is currently in previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater.

“Opera” may be a misnomer in this case. The show is more of a punk rock tone poem in that there is really very little story going on here, but rather an evocation of teen disaffection and confusion in the context of a world saturated with millions of conflicting political and media messages.

“American Idiot” centers around Jesus of Suburbia, a young man who hangs out in the 7-11 parking lot with his friends before he and his two best buds Will and Tunny go their separate ways: Jesus heads to the big city, Will ends up an Army grunt in Iraq and Tunny stays home with his knocked-up girlfriend. (Or maybe it’s Tunny who goes to Iraq, I wasn’t really sure which one was which.)

All three of these young men spend far too much time in basements and on worn-out, Levitz-level furniture, parked in front of TV sets, taking in the endless stream of media – that is represented for us on a towering set covered with propaganda from multiple generations and pockmarked with 20 or so flatscreens that display a variety of video and animations throughout the show.

Somewhere inside them, these three boys must have dreams – but we never get to learn what they are. In “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” – the two shows most closely related to “American Idiot”, the longings of disaffected youth are spoken. They want to create art, or get laid, or break free from their parents. Here the main characters’ dreams – if indeed they have any – are kept from us. We know those dreams are there because we can see the disappointment and anger they feel at not achieving them, and in the realization that they have no discernible means of achieving them.

If any dream at all is voiced, it’s in the very first line of the show: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot!” That’s the extent of their aspiration – to not be a mindless drone in a world run by giant corporations and heartless, terror-producing governments. Jesus, Will and Tunny don’t know what they want to be, they just know what they don't want to be.

If this all sounds a bit dark and depressing, it is. Sort of. It’s rather hard not to be when one of the key themes of a show is “Nobody likes you. Everyone left you. They’re all out without you, having fun.” But “American Idiot” is also a brilliant, explosive, heartfelt work of art that – if you can handle volume – you really ought to see. The music is amazing and the onstage band rocks every corner of the house. The story’s a bit thin, but the show’s not about story – it’s about emotion.

I have only two quibbles with the show. First is with the set design. The screen placements aren’t quite haphazard, but they’re not linear, either, and the hanging car seems out of place. The whole thing is a bit derivative of U2’s amazing ZooTV tour, yet it lacks the chaotic energy that made that environment so compelling.

Second quibble is the cast. Mostly excellent, but if this production ends up on Broadway – as I expect it will – they might want to consider recasting some of the ensemble and perhaps even John Gallagher, Jr. as Jesus of Suburbia. I loved him in “Spring Awakening,” but for some reason he didn’t always connect with me in this role. One part that should not be recast is Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy. From the moment he appears on stage, he commands your attention. When this gets to Broadway, look for a Tony nod for him.

Quibbles aside, if you’re anything like the audience last night at Berkeley Rep, you’ll love “American Idiot.” The standing ovation was almost immediate. And with good reason. For a production that is still in early previews, “American Idiot” is polished, shining with a grungy glamour and working hard to shake everyone out their anxiety-ridden stupors, whether the cause is teenage angst or the middle-age realization that maybe all your dreams aren't going to come true. But that’s OK. After all, happiness lies not in getting what you want, but wanting what you have. And what you have in “American Idiot” is the most interesting American musical to come along since, well, “Spring Awakening.”


Esther said...

Nice review. I'm looking forward to seeing this when/if it gets to Broadway. I'm a John Gallagher Jr. fan from Spring Awakening so I'm sorry to hear that he doesn't seem quite right for the part.

mahlen said...

Totally agree about Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy. He was far and away the most compelling character, perhaps, as you allude to, because his motivations are a lot more apparent.

However, I wasn't put off by the lack of obvious dreams or motivations of the main characters; "I don't want to be like the people I can't stand" strikes me as a pretty common stance for that age. They don't think of themselves as having a whole lot of choice about their lives, so they just try to avoid the outcomes that seem the most offensive.

By all means, see it; it was a very enjoyable show.