Don’t wanna see no more American Idiot

American Idiot 3
Van Hughes (left) is Johnny and Joshua Kobak is St. Jimmy in the Broadway tour of Green Day’s American Idiot now at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: The women of American Idiot work it out: from left, Leslie McDonel, Gabrielle McClinton (Whatsername) and Krystina Alabado, Talia Aaron, Nicci Claspell and Jillian Mueller. Photos by Doug Hamilton

The inevitable homecoming is upon us. The Broadway musical version of Green Day’s American Idiot, which had its world premiere in 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has returned to the Bay Area as part of the SHN season.

As an employee of Berkeley Rep at the time of the show’s premiere, I was deeply immersed in the world of Green Day, big Broadway producers and a world of expectations riding on the shoulders of this 90-minute rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza. It was a blast to have an inside seat for the creation of such an exciting show. But my vantage point also prevented me from really seeing the show with fresh eyes.

There were things I liked about it and things I didn’t. The Green Day score, especially as orchestrated, arranged and supervised by Tom Kitt, was by far the best part. Kitt succeeded masterfully in capturing the rock pulse of the music and then finding ways to infuse it with range and emotion it didn’t have on record.

I had trouble connecting to the bare-bones story of three 20something friends battling their apathy in the suburbs by attempting to make big life choices. The narrative was cloudy at best, and the dialogue, what little exists, was corny and not very helpful

Of course the show changed and evolved through the Berkeley run and then moved on to Broadway (where it won two Tony Awards, for Christine Jones’ set and Kevin Adams’ lights, of which there are many). Though the show has been tightened and tweaked, my feelings about it remain pretty much the same. It’s a whole lot of flash and energy signifying…if not nothing, then nothing much.

American Idiot mostly makes me feel old, not that I’m so aged I can’t connect with rock music or disaffected young people – I deal with both of those fairly regularly in life and on stage. No, Idiot makes me feel old because the constant movement of Stephen Hoggett’s choreography or the incessant visual noise of Darrel Maloney’s projections on what seems like three dozen TV screens gets on my nerves rather quickly. There’s so little story to distract me and so much unfocused anger that I grow weary of a show that’s really just a more carefully directed rock concert. And rock concerts are fine, but they’re not Broadway musicals.

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Director Michael Mayer, who did such thrillingly detailed work with Spring Awakening is going bigger, louder, brasher here. The book, which Mayer co-wrote with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is still the show’s weakest element. I simply don’t care enough about Johnny (Van Hughes), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) or Will (Jake Epstein) to become fully immersed in the world of the show. The strongest story of the three belongs to Tunny, who joins the army and heads off to the Middle East, but more stage time is given to Johnny and his downward spiral into the world of big city hedonism and drug addiction (thanks to the powerful influence of St. Jimmy, played by Joshua Kobak as if he were visiting from The Rocky Horror Show).

Without a strong connection to story, the music is just the music rather than a deeper story element or emotional connection between audience and character. But the music is mostly fantastic, so there are pleasures to be had as this wildly energetic young cast wails their way through the Idiot roster. Musical director/keyboardist Jared Stein whips his five-piece, on-stage band into a respectable frenzy, especially during “Holiday,” a highlight, and the rousing title song.

I enjoyed Jarran Muse’s performance of “Favorite Son” and found the flying sequence – an injured man’s “I Dream of Jeanie” fantasy – beautifully executed by Campbell and Nicci Claspell. Hughes’ performance of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was almost moving, and Gabrielle McClinton’s lead on “Letterbomb” generated some real fire.

There’s plenty to enjoy in this 90-minute musical, but it feels like fast food. In and out easily and not much nutritional value. There’s even a slightly dated feel to the proceedings, like finding yourself at a punk carnival where no one really wants to be.

[Bonus interviews]

I talked to director Michael Mayer about how American Idiot changed from opening day to Broadway to the tour for Theatre Bay Area. Read the interview here.

I also talked to Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Kitt about his extraordinary work translating the Green Day music for the Broadway stage for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Green Day’s American Idiot continues through July 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Green Day at Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is rocking and rolling with Green Day.

After the success of Stew’s Passing Strange, it seems Berkeley Rep can’t get enough of the rock. Already announced for the 2009-10 season was the world premiere of Girlfriend, a stage adaptation of Matthew Sweet’s album of the same name.

Today comes official word that Berkeley Rep will kick off the season with the world premiere stage adaptation of Green Day’s landmark 2004 album American Idiot.

Band members Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool are collaborating with director Michael Mayer, a Tony Award winner for Spring Awakening. The show, featuring an onstage band and an ensemble of 19 young performers, runs Sept. 4-Oct. 11.

Said Armstrong in a statement: “We are really excited to be working with Michael Mayer on this project. We’d been thinking of bringing American Idiot to the stage, but we knew we needed to find the right partners. After meeting with Michael to discuss the possibility, he invited us to see Spring Awakening. We were so impressed with that production, as well as his vision for American Idiot, that we knew we’d found the perfect collaborator. Plus, doing it in our hometown at Berkeley Rep was an obvious bonus. They’re an amazing theater group, very adventurous, and their willingness to take chances in keeping with the spirit of the album. The end result will be terrific, and we’re really proud.”

Mayer said that when he heard American Idiot, he recognized a work that was “begging to be staged.”

“Who would have thought that one of the most brutally honest, eloquent, passionate, funny and poetic theatrical responses to the post-9/11 world would be a Green Day record?” Mayer said. “The connection I felt to American Idiot surprised me. I knew and liked Green Day but had no clue that I would ever feel so inside their songs. This work of passion and vision and fierce intelligence seemed to me like the heartbeat of a generation of Americans who were fed up. I hear in these amazing songs the articulation of their frustration, anger, longing for a better world — a journey from apathy to action. Collaborating with Billie Joe and the band is a mind-blowing thrill, and I can’t wait to begin production at Berkeley Rep, the perfect home for making a new kind of musical event.”

American Idiot, Green Day’s seventh album, was nominated for seven Grammy Awards and won two, including Rock Album of the Year. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart and spawned five hit singles, including the title track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday.”

Tickets to American Idiot are available for select preview performances only at or at 510-647-2949.

Here’s Green Day’s video for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”: