Few lyrics invoke a sense of defiance as well and as quickly as the punchy first line of the familiar Green Day song and its namesake musical: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot.” Preceded and followed by incredibly catchy punk guitar and additional lyrics about the frustrating politics in a post- 9/11 United States, the opening song appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the production.
BareStage Productions’ latest production is “American Idiot,” a sung-through rock opera based on the Green Day concept album of the same name. With music by the band and a story by Tony award-winner Michael Mayer and Green Day’s own frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, “American Idiot” premiered in 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Now, the musical has found its way back to Berkeley at UC Berkeley’s Choral Rehearsal Hall.
The musical follows three unhappy youths from the fictional town of Jingletown — Johnny, Tunny and Will — as the friends split up to take on the world and try to quell their dissatisfaction with their lives in suburbia. While Will has to stay behind after he discovers his girlfriend, Heather, is pregnant, Johnny and Tunny go to start new lives in the city. Tunny is seduced by advertisements featuring America’s “favorite son,” a soldier, and decides to enlist. Meanwhile, Johnny manifests a drug-dealing alter-ego called St. Jimmy and falls into heroin addiction with his new girlfriend, Whatsername.
While the musical’s main characters were originally written as male and cast as such, director Martha Ward says in her director’s note that she did not feel a need to adhere to these predetermined character identities.
“I was struck by how unnecessary conventional casting choices would be, as the painful choices our protagonists make affect all, regardless of gender or nationality,” Ward wrote. “My inspiration for the show’s casting and characters came from the very people who showed up to auditions, as their talent and nerve became the show’s foundation the second they stepped in the room.” It’s a delightful change; the cast of “American Idiot” is refreshingly diverse, and Ward’s decision to prioritize actors’ talent and personality is evident in the cast’s thoroughly impressive performances.
The cast of “American Idiot” drips with passion and potential. This production is one which demands attitude from every actor, and BareStage has delivered completely. Particularly strong performances come from Skylar Davidson, who unabashedly plays the unhinged yet nuanced, spectacularly fun St. Jimmy, and Kamilah Cole and Emielyn Das show off beautiful and melodic singing in their respective roles as Tunny and Heather.
The most captivating performance, however, comes from Dale Tanner as Johnny. Tanner not only sang her numbers remarkably, but demonstrated phenomenal acting throughout the musical. Johnny is perhaps the most angst-filled, angry and stubborn of all of the characters, and Tanner fully captures these strong characteristics by incorporating even the smallest, most subtle mannerisms thoughtfully while underlining her entire performance with lots of fiery passion. She is a marvel to watch on stage.
Although “American Idiot” is a great show, the production’s greatest weakness lies in its story. The musical touches on some very sensitive themes, including war, unplanned pregnancy and heroin addiction, but never with as much time or depth as these topics deserve. The book seems to utilize these heavy themes to elicit emotional responses from the audience rather than aiming to paint a complete picture of these complex, painful experiences.
While the musical does a good enough job of telling the main trio’s stories simultaneously during musical numbers, Will’s feels like the most underdeveloped and stagnant of the three. Audience investment for Will, and therefore, the story’s primary friendships, would be significantly increased if more thought were put into this storyline.
But in the end, these shortcomings do not take much away from the high-energy enjoyability of the show. BareStage Productions’ “American Idiot” is a wonderful amalgamation of teenage challenges, political commentary and a healthy dose of Green Day’s greatest hits.