Arts Listings

Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:48:00 AM
The world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep.
Photo courtesy of
The world premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, staged by Tony-winning director Michael Mayer at Berkeley Rep.

Amid all the preshow hoopla and media ballyhoo, Berkeley Rep premiered the onstage version of Berkeley’s Grammy-winning rock group Green Day’s American Idiot, with an aftershow party sprawling out of the Roda Theatre, across the courtyard, and onto the thrust stage, where a skating rink-like disco held forth.  

Groaning buffets, wetbars, liquored-up sno-cones—and of course the pièce-de-resistance, lest we forget, the stage musical version of Green Day’s hit rock opera, sandwiched somewhere between. 

On a set bursting with video screens and repros of rock posters (Dead Kennedys and The Minutemen, alas), the singers, on thrift-store furniture, faced the audience; Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) made a petulant rockstar leap on a platform bed, initiating the title song—chimes with American Idol—with a flow of derisive and self-derogatory post-adolescent angst with a tinge of social comment, castigating the media—perhaps bracketing those of us in the audience videoing and snapping pictures throughout the auditorium—and parodying or bonding with military figures in desert fatigues, dancing, lying prone, still or singing in hospital beds. And the 75-minute night wore on. 

Viewed online in live-performance clips or heard on their hit CD, Green Day’s own way of selling American Idol has something of the crispness, immediacy and story-telling style of good rock left to its own devices.  

But the stage version served up to us is really just a revue, scraping the bottom of the barrel for theatrical effects to dress what’s intended to be raw to make it seem raw—a kind of double feedback or the gilding of a wilted lily. 

At one point, a young woman in veils and Disneyesque Orientalism is lowered on wires from the flies, imploring a wounded GI (or member of the band? As staged, it’s ambiguous; like artistic music videos, I guess) to fly away with her ... PETER PAN pirated! Tinkerbell as Scheherazde? Where’s the ticking crocodile? 

And we were assured by all concerned that it would be so special ...  

Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day says in the program that he was floored by Spring Awakening and how unconventional Michael Mayer—director and co-writer with Armstrong for the book, who “updated” Frank Wedekind’s great century-old play about the travails of youth in a repressive society (contemporaneous with but rather unlike Peter Pan)—is. And Tony Taccone of the Berkeley Rep says he first heard of Mayer’s brilliance from Tony Kushner, when Mayer directed Angels in America, which Taccone premiered at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater. 

And—maybe because it’s the season opener—the Rep took the opportunity to let its past flash before its eyes, eulogizing itself everywhere, as if American Idiot were the icing on the cake, the life work, the masterstroke ... instead of a Berkeley-is-Connecticutt tryout of an all-too-conventional revue for future New York City consumption. 

It’s hard to adapt rock to another medium. The exhilaration gets dampened or lost, along with the point. A few films found a kind of parallax view—Performance, Privilege, maybe Rock ’n’ Roll High School—but the special energy and intelligence of rock performance, as pioneered by Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al., and developed by Ike and Tina Turner, American and British bands of the 1960s and the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Bad Brains doesn’t translate easily—especially when the medium’s a pastiche of floorshow kitsch. 

The performers are pros and work hard, throwing themselves into it, singing, dancing, posing ... and the onstage musicians are perfectly competent or better (drummer Trey Files is especially worthy of mention). But Berkeley Rep’s done this sort of thing before, throwing everything in the closet at Carrie Fisher’s verbal noodling, trying to make a parlor piece look like theater.  

At one point, Johnny tells the audience he knocked over a convenience store to buy a ticket (a bus or plane ticket, apparently, not one to the show), then says, no, he stole the cash from his mother—well, his mother gave it to him, “the bitch!” 

My sentiments, exactly. 

If you can’t get a ticket to the Rep, and miss it at Midtown, too, cheer up—in a couple of years American Idiot will play your local casino as an oldies floorshow. 



Through Nov. 1 at the Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. $32–$86. Visit for tickets and