For good and ill, the musical “American Idiot” resembles most is its original rock predecessor, “Hair.” It’s another double album’s worth of great songs posited as a bulletin from today’s rebellious youth, energetically performed, dynamically staged, with a few paper scraps of slogan and penciled preliminary plot outline serving as “book.”
That combination currently makes for an often exhilaratingly messy evening whose lack of narrative point doesn’t matter much — for 95 minutes, at least, if not in hindsight. Enough punk cred survives this transformation of Green Day’s 2004 disc to appease and please those who would smell too much theatrical showboating in the likes of “Rent” or even director/co-book author Michael Mayer’s “Spring Awakening.”
Demand is such that three weeks were added to Berkeley Rep’s premiere run before previews began. While at present it’s anyone’s guess how the show might fare on Broadway (let alone with Broadway critics), this surely won’t be the end of its commercial life.
Cacophonous input from Brian Ronan’s sound design and Darrel Maloney’s 35 video monitors, intermingling exhortations like George W. Bush’s “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” with vapid celebrity-news tidbits, sets the just-post-9/11 backdrop described in a rendition of the title anthem by scruffy lead Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.). His generalized disgust at the state of the “alien- nation” — “controlled by the media/information age of hysteria” — is shared by all 19 cast members in ripped band T’s and thrift store finery. Their collective angst reaches a spirited early peak in the “Jesus of Suburbia” song suite.
For Johnny, the immediate solution is bolting boring Jingletown for the big city. Unfortunately, the good he finds there — namely, girlfriend Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones of “Passing Strange”) — gets overwhelmed by a drug addiction spiral to which they’re both introduced by dealer St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Meanwhile, Tunny (Matt Caplan) gets swept up in patriotic fever, Iraq combat leaving him permanently disabled. Staying home in J-town is Will (Michael Esper), who soon grows to resent the tender trap of a spouse (Mary Faber) and baby to support.
All paths taken end in disillusionment and abandonment, prompting a homecoming group-hug fadeout. But it rings a little hollow: What have these cursorily sketched characters learned? Can they now improve their own lot, let alone the country’s? The class of ’67 in “Hair” didn’t just see society as broken; they had ideas about how to fix it.
There’s no such big picture on the minds of “Idiot’s” protagonists — their one-fingered salute toward the status quo feels a tad bored and bratty, disinterested in a future on which they’ve already given up.
Though the original album works as a “concept” whole in musical terms, Billy Joe Armstrong’s lyrics don’t provide much narrative spine on closer examination; nor does his and Mayer’s book do much to firm it up. Still, there’s no question the songs (which include a few from Green Day’s new “21st Century Breakdown”) make a joyful, catchy and rowdy noise, shaming the usual pablum that passes for rock onstage.
Carmel Dean’s eight-piece band, arrayed behind the actors, kicks out arrangements that Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) has usefully expanded from the disc’s blueprint. Just as he manages ensemble voice effects more ramalama than “choral,” choreographer Steven Hoggett’s movement likewise excites without straying far beyond what would look at home in a mosh pit — some odd ASL-type hand gestures and women’s ballet postures aside.
Christine Jones’ set is a sky-high unit of punk-poster-papered wall dotted by TVs and hidden windows, with one fire-escape staircase snaking all the way up. Mayer & Co.’s packaging retains a DIY spirit despite technical complexities that include hydraulics, a wire-flying interlude (for Tunny and Christina Sajous’ Extraordinary Girl), video art, animation, live camera feeds, projected slides and moving images, et al. — to say nothing of Kevin Adams’ go-for-broke lighting design. Youthful thesps are appealing if admittedly interchangeable, since their roles demand so little specificity.
The sum is hard to resist — at least for anyone not allergic to the fast/loud music and attitude at hand — even if it’s close to incoherent in its precise message. There’s probably always going to be a perilous gap between “rock” and “musical,” with the purer forms of each opposed by nature. “American Idiot” surely does rock, and its electricity is theatrical enough. But for those who expect a musical to take dimensionalized characters from point A to meaningful point B, it’s a joyride that as yet doesn’t appear to have a real destination.