‘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
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.