“American Idiot” raises the bar in Berkeley!

I’m a fugitive son in the era of dissent
A hostage of the soul on a strike to pay the rent
The last of the rebels without a common ground
I’m gonna light a fire into the underground - - -
I don’t want to live in a modern world, - - -
Lyrics taken from “Modern World” by Green Day in their album “21st Century Breakdown”

Rebellion, discontent, fomenting in the mid-1970’s through the 1990’s, became apparent in a rancid, rabid rock music, more discordant and outrageous than its earlier rock and roll predecessors, as it began flooding the youthful music scene. Groups such as the British Punk Rock group known as the Sex pistols (1975-1978) were accredited as one of the earliest Punk Rock style innovators. Their brand of hard driving, drug influenced, anti-establishment musical rock genres, has been passed on to those disaffected and alienated on the youthful fringes of society. In 1987 a group formed in Berkeley, California as a rock trio is known today as Green Day. For the greater part of the group’s existence, the band has consisted of Billy Joe Armstrong (vocals, acoustic guitar), Mike Dirnt (Base Guitar, vocals) and Tré Cool (Drums, percussion).

The band members lived in the East Bay area, attended Berkeley High, and became part of the punk rock scene at “924 Gillman Street in Berkeley.” The group morphed several times, emerging in 1994 with a break-through album called “Dookie”, which eventually sold 10 million copies in the US and 15 million copies worldwide. Green Day became credited as being a group that revived mainstream interests in and popularizing punk rock in America. Earlier groups cringe at Green Day being bestowed with the title of Punk Rockers, yet their music consisted in large part of hard driving guitars, maniac percussion, and relatively high-treble bass, fast-paced hysterical lyrics with blistering content that underscored the radical words, sounds and core values of the Punk movement.

Armstrong’s lyrics often describe the loneliness and alienation of his peers. The affects of living in a drug induced semi-comatose existence is both chided and praised in his remarkable, pain-filled and alliterative lyrics.

The band had its successes and won many, many awards and accolades over the next decade but in 2003 the band was having its share of internal personality problems. Realizing the need for a reality check, they (the individuals) engaged in very constructive communications sessions that helped reduce the hard edges. The band subsequently emerged with a brilliant new album in 2004, called “American Idiot”. The album rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts (sold over 12 million copies worldwide), and, as the band’s first ever album, won Green Day the 2005 Grammy award for “Best Rock Album”. The album was soon described by reviewers as a “Punk Opera” that followed three young men in search of life supporting their core values and beliefs, a path that eventually led to a nearly disastrous meltdown in their lives.

Billy Joe Armstrong recently disclosed that the group had been considering bringing “American Idiot”, the album, to the stage, but the group realized that it had to have the right team to create a staging that was as powerful as the story itself. Enter Michael Mayer, a young director who had recently directed the controversial and powerful rock musical about young people in a German village exploring their sexual awakening and coming of age, in Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s “Spring Awakening”. While Michael was doing an interview about “Spring Awakening”, someone asked him what he wanted to do next, and he said he would love to do “American Idiot” next. A year and a half later, he called Green Day and proposed that they take the album to another level, creating a full-fledged musical from the tapestry woven in the musical composition itself. Mayer and Green Day met many times in preparation of creating this completely new production.

That album/musical was work-shopped in New York and in Berkeley and was finally developed into the electrifying stage version that opened this past week to thunderous applause.
The story follows three working class characters and their peers as they rebel in the inner-cities and suburbs, following them on their individual life’s journeys that take them deeper into despair, inner-turmoil, strife and drugs. It even follows those whose personal storms lifted as their patriotism carried them to the war-torn cities of the Middle-East. This is a powerful and agonizingly thought-provoking musical metaphor.

The words, the language and music are both shocking and exhilarating. The graphic descriptions of sexual and drug perversity and its excesses are mind-blowing, but in the context of the times and the reality of the story, the importance of its being told in this fashion is simply too important to be ignored or avoided. I cannot imagine that there are no adults in the Rossmoor community that would not find this a rewarding, learning experience.

The story is both revealing and perhaps a little frightening for parents of young adults, and certainly not something I would recommend you take impressionable young people to see. This kind of music is exhilarating and hypnotizing even to me, as a mature adult; certainly not something I want to serve as a conduit for, to younger audiences. I have to admire and respect Green Day members Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tré Cool, for living to tell us about it, and living to create what I am sure will eventually become a masterpiece of rock opera that tells a very powerful story! I have been listening to Green Day’s newest album, “21st Century Breakdown” over this past weekend and as an aficionado of many types of rock music, I am suitably impressed. There is a real edge to Armstrong’s music, with a richness that is truly unique to this kind of music. It has more substance than music typical of this genre!

There are 19 actors who bring this hard driving Rock Opera to its perfection and are simply stunning in every aspect. The principal actors and actresses selected include Tony-award winning actor, John Gallagher, Jr. as Johnny, Matt Caplan as Tunny, Michael Esper as Will and Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy, with Mary Farber as Heather, Rebedda Naomi Jones as Whatsername, and Christina Sajous as the Extraordinary Girl.

Everything about this musical screams out at you with a fresh vision, from the powerful and unusual three story set (Christine Jones); to the hard-driving musical direction by Carmel Dean; to the haunting lighting design by Kevin Adams; to the strong costume design by Andrea Lauer. Director Michael Mayer has brought to Berkeley, where it all began, to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it deserved to be born, to the Bay Area theatrical community who are broad minded enough to wrap their minds around its complexities, a piece of serious theatrical art.

American Idiot has had such an overwhelming response to its opening that it has just been extended, not three additional days, but THREE ADDITIONAL WEEKS, to accommodate the incredible ticket demand. Performances continue on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through November 1st. Call the Box office at (510) 647-2917 or visit their website at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ . The Roda Theatre is located at 2025 Addison Street in downtown Berkeley, two blocks from the downtown Berkeley BART station. Tickets range between $38 and $95 each.

Brief Encounter astounds audiences in San Francisco!

Heading towards the other end of the musical theatrical spectrum, ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco has invited a British company, Kneehigh Theatre, to their ACT’s stage to present a brilliantly adapted, warm, romantic and richly rewarding musical of one of Noël Coward’s most poignant and revered plays and movies, “Brief Encounter”.

When I chanced to see David Lean’s 1945 seminal movie version of the play on the American Movie Channel, my wife and I quickly catalogued it as one of our favorite movies. The screenplay was actually written by Noël Coward and is based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life. The soundtrack prominently features the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Brief Encounter was adapted as a radio play on the November 20, 1946 episode of Academy Award Theater, starring Greer Garson. It was presented three times on The Screen Guild Theater, first on the May 12, 1947 episode with Herbert Marshall and Lilli Palmer, again on January 12, 1948 with Herbert Marshall and Irene Dunne and finally on January 11, 1951 with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. It was also adapted to Lux Radio Theater on the November 29, 1948 episode with Van Heflin and Greer Garson and on the May 14, 1951 episode with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Basehart (Have Gun Will Travel). It has earned tremendous admiration and respect in England. In 2008, the Kneehigh Theatre Company adapted it again for the stage by Emma Rice and this production is a unique mixture of the film and stage play. It toured the UK before opening in February 2008 at the Haymarket Cinema in London, moved on to Broadway and now to San Francisco.

The plot basically revolves around a suburban house wife, Laura Jesson (Hannah Yelland), who travels to the nearby town of Milford once weekly to do her principal shopping and to attend an afternoon at the cinema. While waiting at the train station for her return home from one of her shopping excursions, she gets a piece of grit in her eye. She rushes into the refreshment stand at the station and requests a glass of water to assist her in removing the grit. When her own attempts to remove it fail, another passenger, a doctor by the name of Alec Harvey (Milo Twomey), volunteers to rescue her from the uncomfortable situation.

Both are in their middle 30’s, married with two children each. Dr. Harvey is a general practitioner who works one day a week as a consultant at the local hospital, requiring him to come to Milford every Thursday. They strike up an innocent friendship and quite by accident they cross each other’s path the following Thursday and perhaps not quite-so-innocently they continue to cross each other’s path again and again as a more personal relationship and attraction to each other develops. They are soon troubled to find their innocent and casual relationship is quickly developing into love.

They continue to meet secretly, constantly fearing chance meetings with friends. They eventually go to a friend of the doctor’s apartment, where the doctor has a pass key and permission to crash on occasions where he may have to stay over after a long day at the hospital. Thinking the doctor’s friend is engaged for that particular evening, they meet somewhat expecting to finally consummate their heart-rending passion. However, the doctor’s friend returns unexpectedly. Terribly embarrassed and feeling extremely guilty, they conclude that a future together is utterly impossible.

In addition to this story, there are two other love stories being co-mingled with the principal characters, as the lady who runs the refreshment room in the train station, Myrtle (played by Annette McLaughlin), and her beau, station attendant Albert (played by Joseph Alessi), share bits and pieces of their romantic interludes. Two other station employees, Beryl (Beverly Rudd), a young girl who works in the station refreshment room for Myrtle, has a thing for a young man, Stanley (played by Stuart McLaughlin). Laura’s husband Fred is played by Joseph Alessi.

Adaptor Emma Rice has added another dimension to this production by selecting songs from Noël Coward’s song book that work exceeding well with the emotions and light-moments that provide diversity to this musical. In addition, Rice interjects a consistent element of comedy throughout the entire production, done in a somewhat “panto” fashion.

This company is a very “complete” company in that each actor does double duty, by both playing instruments and providing lyrical interludes throughout the play. Even before the play opens, the entire cast comes out into the theatre dressed as 1930’s movie ushers (in full costume) and mingle with the audience, entertaining as they wander the isles, singing Noël Coward’s songs and songs representative of the late 1930’s when the story is supposed to have taken place. I must particularly note that Joseph Alessi, Beverly Rudd and Stuart McLaughlin, have exceptionally pleasing voices.

Also unique is the fact that Director Emma Rice has paid tribute to both the film version and stage version of this play by merging both medias again and again throughout this production. There is a full size screen taking up the entire front stage area that introduces us to the film credits of the movie and the opening scenes extracted from the movie, through and from which the actors emerge on and off the stage. Through the production, the remarkable movie screen, multi-media concept, re-emerges, blending again and again the reality of the movie and the stage production to the audiences’ amazement!

The set design by Neil Murray, the projection concepts by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the Lighting design by Malcolm Rippeth, and the Puppets created by Lyndie Wright, each add a special element to the success of this marvelous production. Yes, my friends, this bold company has even introduced puppet children to the show, and they are so well behaved!

This masterpiece of romantic comedy fused with music, plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through Sunday, October 4th. Tickets range between $17 and $82 dollars each and can be acquired by calling the ACT ticket services for tickets to the ACT theatre located at 415 Geary Street in San Francisco at (415) 749-2228 or visiting their web-site at http://www.act-sf.org/ . My wife and I usually take BART to the Powell Station an walk the half-dozen blocks to the theatre.