NEW YORK TIMES

01-09 – NEW YORK TIMES

‘Idiot’ Welcomes Back a Bad Influence

Rock star impersonators are not exactly rare creatures on Broadway today. An imitation Elvis and Jerry Lee and friends are stirring up trouble in “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Nederlander Theater. Flesh facsimiles of Paul, John, George and Ringo are running through the Beatles’ greatest hits nightly in “Rain” at the Neil Simon.

But if you’re looking for the actual article, there is only St. Jimmy at the St. James. Billie Joe Armstrong, the Green Day frontman with the antic aspect of a rabid raccoon, has rejoined the cast of “American Idiot” for a few weeks, bringing a jolt of authentic rock-god electricity to a musical that was plenty electrified — and electrifying — to start with.

The most notable, and commendable, aspect of Mr. Armstrong’s performance as the drug pusher St. Jimmy is how notable it is not, in a fundamental sense. Although ripples of excitement spread through the audience in the moments before his entrance, and the raucous cheers of fans rise when he comes slamming onto the stage, Mr. Armstrong is not merely strutting around spreading stardust. (His arrival will no doubt goose the box office considerably, as it did when he first joined the show for several performances in the fall.)

Certainly he brings his own style and charisma to bear on the role, as any actor would. But at no point does Mr. Armstrong indulge in extraneous audience pandering or self-indulgent showboating. “American Idiot” is an ensemble show, an aching portrait of disaffected youth in search of itself. Mr. Armstrong, who wrote the songs (with Green Day) and wrote the book with the director, Michael Mayer, naturally has a stake in maintaining its integrity. He’s not here to undermine it with focus-pulling grandstanding, and he doesn’t. He plays the role, and plays it very well. (Mr. Armstrong is appearing in selected performances through Feb. 27.)

Which is not to say he fades into the background of course. On the concert stage Mr. Armstrong is a vivid, feral and animated presence, and when he’s at the center of the action in “American Idiot,” portraying the sinister vision who draws one of the show’s leading characters, Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), into a maelstrom of drug addiction, he’s ablaze with energy, a whirling tornado of temptation.

The popping eyes, rimmed in enough eyeliner to keep the girls of “Jersey Shore” in business for a long weekend, and the jet-black, finger-in-light-socket hairdo are emblems of pop-punk rebellion that a kid from the sticks like Johnny would naturally bow down before, whether he’s under the influence or not. But if Tony Vincent, the actor who originated the role of St. Jimmy, personified the sexual seduction of seeking ecstasy in a syringe, Mr. Armstrong more powerfully embodies the heady allure of risk as an end in itself and the dark threat of self-destruction.

He has a wicked, twisted smile suggesting there will always be more exotic pleasures to be discovered as long as the sun hasn’t come up yet. And it almost goes without saying that Mr. Armstrong sings with a surging, gut-driven power that brings out the snarling anger in the music with a fierce intensity.

As portrayed with a keen sense of uneasiness in his own skin by Mr. Gallagher, Johnny is a rebel who doesn’t quite have the courage of his angry convictions — a soul more naturally inclined to love than rage. But he cannot resist the pull of anarchy when it calls to him in the form of Mr. Armstrong’s St. Jimmy, the bad influence essentially good boys are always drawn to.

The soul battle between Johnny and his nihilistic doppelgänger St. Jimmy is hardly the whole of “American Idiot.” The musical also traces the paths of Johnny’s friends Tunny (Stark Sands), who moves to the big city with Johnny and joins the Army, and Will (Michael Esper), who is forced to stay back home when his girlfriend (Jeanna de Waal) becomes pregnant. All the performances in the central roles, which includes Rebecca Naomi Jones as the girl Johnny loves and loses, remain heartfelt and fresh. (Ms. de Waal is the only newcomer to the cast.)

Performing a show with the highly charged metabolism of “American Idiot” eight times a week could, I suppose, either rev you up nightly or leave you spent; on the evidence of this, my third visit to the show, it seems pretty clear the whole cast remains attuned to its surging energy, and continues to find inspiration in it. I was struck anew by the terrific work of the show’s young ensemble, particularly in transmitting the visceral charge of the choreography by Steven Hoggett, full of the exultation, abandon and frustration of being young.

Although it deals in simple archetypes of alienated youth, “American Idiot” is fashioned with such a keen sense of emotional truth — almost all of it communicated in song — that the characters and their struggles to make their way in the world feel vital and acutely specific, the pain of real people seen with vivid intimacy. It remains, for me, the most exciting and moving new musical on Broadway, a potent fable about growing up in a distracted and disappointed America, and how finding yourself can often involve losing yourself, at least for a little while, through the time-honored time killers of youth: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

“American Idiot” is at the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200.

[Full article at NY Times]

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Posted on February 7, 2011, in News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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