Green Day’s rock opera hits home
on October 12, 2009
Midway through the rock opera “American Idiot,” the main character Johnny, his rebel girlfriend Whatsername, and an ensemble of urban youth belt out their message of isolation in the city: “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me, my shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating, sometimes I wish someone out there will find me, till then I walk alone.”
The song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” was written by Oakland-based Green Day, a band that’s succeeded on a global level but still has deep East Bay roots. Their Grammy-winning album, “American Idiot,” inspired a rock opera that plays through November 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. The show, written by Tony-Award-winning director Michael Mayer and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, is about three young men trying to figure out their lives in a post-9/11 society.
The character Tunny (played by Matt Caplan) is influenced by the media to join the Army. Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) seeks independence in the city, explores the use of drugs, lusts after Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and is angry at Tunny for going off to fight in the war. Then there’s Will (Michael Esper) whose girlfriend gets pregnant and leaves him because of his lazy habits, drinking problem, and rage.
The story line that ran through the pounding rock music and neon bright lights was about the personal frustration and political confusion faced by youth today. The message appeared to hit home for some. One woman at the show who started listening to Green Day in college said it reminded her of her nephew going off to Iraq. “I remember when he was a baby, and it makes me realize how fast time has gone, and that now he’s heading to war,” said 37-year-old Oakland resident Jacki Arase.
Part of the Green Day rock opera appreciation at the theater was local pride. The fashions for the cast – skinny jeans, asymmetrical hair, colorful shoes — looked like they could have been ripped from Berkeley High School students a block down the street from the theater. When Will’s girlfriend Heather walked out in a scene wearing the popular, “I hella heart Oakland,” T-shirt, the crowed roared with laughter.
“It’s nice for people who made it big to come back to their community and represent,” said Oakland resident Emi Untalan, 27. “Especially when it hasn’t been anywhere else.”
Band members still maintain a close relationship to the East Bay: Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong co-owns Oakland-based Adeline Records with his wife Adrienne Armstrong, and professional skateboarder Jim Thiebaud, while Green Day Bassist Mike Dirnt owns the hip Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emeryville.
“American Idiot” was the opening performance of Berkeley Rep’s season this year and it has taken off with a bang. Terence Keane, the theater’s public relations director, said “American Idiot” has been the top grossing show in the theater’s history.
The play presents a mix of music performed from Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot and the 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown. It also premiers a guitar solo that Armstrong wrote for his wife when he was 19.
Although Mayer directed “American Idiot,” Green Day was actively involved in the course of the production. According to Berkeley Rep. Director of Marketing and Communications, Robert Sweibal, the band flew out to the original workshops with the cast in New York, and attended rehearsals in Berkeley to offer their insight. “The band’s been incredibly gracious and supportive of the show,” Sweibal said.
Throughout the performance, the cast leaped, spun, swung through the sky, and sang major Green Day hits like “Jesus of Suburbia” – a song that laments a hyper-stimulating culture obsessed with television and running on a “steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin.”
The show comes to an end with the song, “Whatsername.” Months to years have passed, and Johnny is wondering what happened to his ex-girlfriend. Standing at the center of the stage, he sings, “And in the darkest night, if my memory serves me right, I’ll never turn back time, forgetting you, but not the time.” The curtains close with a message of taking responsibility for our lives, not regretting the past, and moving on.
After the performance, audience members gathered at the theater’s softly lit courtyard and outdoor bar to process the rock opera marathon they had just witnessed.
“I have always loved Green Day,” said Alix Womack, 22, as she stood with her friend texting on their cell phones by the lobby door. “Their music is phenomenal, and it gives me Bay Area pride knowing the band started here.”
Although Green Day was present at the rock opera’s opening, they’re now miles away from home on their world tour for 21st Century Breakdown. Perhaps someday, the rock opera will follow in their globe trotting footsteps.
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