Thursday, September 30, 2010

St. Billie Rocks The St. James

When it was announced that Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day frontman, would step into the role of St. Jimmy in American Idiot for only 8 performances, it may have sounded like a stunt, another attempt to boost ticket sales, which it was (here is an interesting New York Times article with more details), but Armstrong's debut on Tuesday night proved to be one of the most exhilarating nights of theater I've experienced.

From the line outside to get into the theater, the excitement all around was palpable, yet there was nothing to indicate that this show would be any different besides the packed house (a rarity for American Idiot these days). There was no sign in the lobby, no insert in the program. During the pre-show announcement, after the request to turn off all cell phones, the announcer added very matter-of-factly, "Tonight, the role of St. Jimmy, usually played by Tony Vincent, will be played by Billie Joe Armstrong." The response from the crowd was defeaning.

The cast seemed a bit more nervous and there was longer applause between each song, but for the most part, the show was the same as it is always is, with the cast working as hard as they always do. The character of St. Jimmy doesn't arrive until about half-an-hour in. Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.) starts singing "St. Jimmy," and then he appears "like a zip gun on parade," racing down the stairs with the video screens zeroing in on his manic expressions. It is always a thrilling entrance no matter who is in the role, but this time, we were treated to an actual rock star, not just a character who looks and sings like one. Armstrong nailed every bit of staging, choreography, and note, and was a true professional. The only time he broke character was after "The Death of St. Jimmy." Ensemble members carried him off the stage and for a brief moment, he waved to the audience, who ate it up.

I should say that Tony Vincent is excellent in the role (I was shocked when he didn't get a Tony nomination for his performance). Vincent's interpretation of St. Jimmy is much more sinister, while Armstrong is more playful. Armstrong is not better than Vincent, but seeing the person who wrote the material always adds something, whether it be Lin-Manuel Miranda in In The Heights or Stew in Passing Strange. The writer has a connection to the characters that nobody else can.

I encourage any fan of the show or of Armstrong to see him this week (he will be in it through Sunday). While I would recommend the show even when he is not in it, I'm curious to see whether sales will pick up at all after he leaves. Maybe some audience members who saw the show because of Armstrong will want to go back, but I can't really see sales increasing substantially for the future. A friend of mine thought that Armstrong should randomly show up in the musical from time to time but never announce it in advance, so that his fans would buy tickets frequently. But I wouldn't want to see him in the show too often--it would take away from the once-in-a-lifetime feeling. Besides, I don't think that would be fair to the actors.

This week, Rock of Ages announced that Dee Snider will be taking over the role of Dennis. I don't know if this will generate the same level of excitement--he's in it for a longer period of time and didn't write the show (though some of his songs are featured)--but again, I'm interested to see if this becomes a trend. Maybe if Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is not a sellout, Bono and the Edge will step in.

Photo credit: Krissie Fullerton, see more photos at


Gil said...

I'm very much looking forward to seeing this tomorrow. :)

Linda said...

And I'm very much looking forward to hearing what you think. I hope I didn't raise your expectations too high.

Esther said...

It would be weird to see Passing Strange without Stew. Although I guess if you never saw it with him, it wouldn't make any difference!

Anyway, glad you enjoyed Billie Joe. What a memorable experience! If I lived in New York, I'd go. But so many shows, so little time.