Do you have the time, to listen to me whine about American Idiot, now through November 1, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre? The cause of my alienation with this musical about the same is not so much the self-congratulatory hype that has surrounded the production, or the silliness of having the ushers offer theater-goers purple and orange earplugs before leading us to our seats -- would that the music had been loud enough to actually require them. I can even get past the cell-phone-announcement guy artificially pumping up the audience by asking us if we were "ready to rock 'n' roll!" Please.
No, the problem was that director Michael Mayer of Spring Awakening fame has turned the biggest album of Green Day's storied career into a poseur-punk version of Disney's High School Musical.
In Green Day's hands, American Idiot, the album, was a sometimes predictable bit of pop fluff that redeemed its clichéd lyrics and tired complaints about life in middle-class suburbia with great hooks, inspired musicianship, and expressive, snarling vocals. In Mayer's hands, American Idiot is all gimmicks and big-time Broadway razzle-dazzle. What a bore.
It should have been obvious from the get go that the two forms would be incompatible. After all, Green Day's music works best when it feels a little bit dangerous, when things seem on the verge of careening out of control. In contrast, a conductor kept the musicians at Berkeley Rep in tight check, guaranteeing that the Roda Theatre's stage would remain a spontaneity-free zone.
Then there was the stock staging, which felt lifted from a dog-eared musical playbook. Need to turn a piece of scaffolding into a bus? Simply assemble the ensemble to tip the thing on its side as the lead actor, Tony-winner John Gallagher, Jr., rides it to the ground, Cirque du Soleil style. But don't stop there: Make sure as many actors as possible jump up and down on the prop's roof, and then get everybody to hang out of the windows at the same time, fists pumping in the air. Everything looks better when it's done in unison, right? Got a scene that's moving too slow? Hoist your actors into the air against a backdrop of posters and TV screens and ask them to sing their lines from on high. Why? Because you can.
The crowded dance numbers were another disappointment: Choreographer Steven Hoggett appears to have confused dance with aerobic workouts. And the transitions between the production's song-and-dance numbers were positively terrible. In most cases, Gallagher addresses the crowd to deliver a series of very short (three sentences? four?), jokey monologues that usually begin with the words "Dear mom," as in "Dear mom. I shot drugs for the first time today." Shock me, shock me, shock me!
Oh right, the plot. Johnny has left home to get laid (Rebecca Naomi Jones is a sultry Whatsername) and learn how to shoot heroin (Tony Vincent is his demonic dealer, St. Jimmy). He accomplishes both, getting a good case of psychic desolation in the bargain, but he manages to avoid addiction (the moment when he dumped the last of his stash on the stage provoked scattered, earnest applause, presumably from the vegan parents in the audience). And then he goes home, where he feels alienated all over again until he's saved by rock 'n' roll. Or something like that.
Meanwhile, Johnny's friend Will (Michael Esper) sticks it out in Tinsletown to hang with his preggers girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber). Will basically spends the entire play sitting on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer. Naturally Heather leaves the lout and becomes a successful Material Girl. Johnny's other friend Tunny (Matt Caplan) gets himself somewhat blown up in Iraq but falls in love with his nurse, The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous). And that's sort of it. I guess I'm glad someone (fictional or otherwise) has benefited from the war in Iraq, but it seems like an awfully steep price to pay for a mediocre plot point.
American Idiot runs through November 1, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.