'American Idiot' Theater Review: Billie Joe Armstrong Electrifies an Already Exhilarating Musical

The Green Day frontman's electrifying presence onstage further ups the adrenaline of what was already the most viscerally exciting show on Broadway.  

NEW YORK -- Pay attention, Bono. Billie Joe Armstrong is presenting a kickass case that popular music and Broadway can make beautiful bedfellows. And hey look, Julie Taymor, there's also a mesmerizing flying sequence in which nobody gets hurt!

Parallels to the eternally evolving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark aside, American Idiot is an exemplary lesson in full-throttle commitment from a major rock star stepping into the uncustomary arena of musical theater.

Throughout the show's development and from its tryout at Berkeley Rep through its Broadway opening last April, Armstrong and Green Day bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool have been hands-on creative forces with the emotionally hyper-kinetic pop-punk opera adapted from their 2004 album. After a sellout single-week engagement in September, Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics and co-authored the book with director Michael Mayer, is now back for 50 performances as St. Jimmy, the malevolent Pied Piper of hallucinogens.

As an antidote to the post-holiday winter box-office doldrums for a 10-month-old show, it's a brilliant strategy. But it's also great theater, adding new peaks to an exhilarating theatrical experience that ravishes the senses with wave upon wave of raw energy.

That Armstrong is so physically wired into the music is no surprise. What's more notable about his performance is the keen balance required to deliver a star turn that also folds seamlessly into the ensemble.

Pushing 40 but looking forever like the surly kid who stole Mom's kohl pencil and hair dye, Armstrong makes Jimmy a playful but petulant angel of destruction. He supplies the candy that accelerates the journey to rock bottom of Johnny, the nihilistic suburban escapee played with galvanizing conviction by John Gallagher Jr.

As Gallagher ushers on the character with the introductory bars of "St. Jimmy," audience anticipation swells to a roar that returns whenever Armstrong enters or exits. The sneer he can wrap around a simple word like "so" is evidence enough alone as to why the guy's a rock star.

But there's also an unexpected vulnerability to his characterization that distinguishes it from that of his more demonic predecessor in the role, Tony Vincent. When Armstrong banishes the tenderness of Johnny's love song for his girlfriend, Whatsername (the knockout Rebecca Naomi Jones), by blasting "Know Your Enemy," there's a quiet note of panic in his machinations, as if he knows his hold on Johnny can't last.

Beyond Armstrong and appealing newcomer Jeanna de Waal, the long-haul cast members continue to give 100 percent and the production's stagecraft remains dazzling.

On repeated listens, the multitextured orchestrations by Next to Normal composer Tom Kitt reveal ever-greater complexity in their ability to theatricalize the songs -- at times rendering them more intimate, at others pumping them up into full-throated shouts -- without betraying their original essence. His use of strings, via musicians sawing away high up on designer Christine Jones' scaffold tower, is especially gorgeous.
Kitt's work serves as a wakeup call to anyone who ever failed to notice that for a scrappy pop-punk band, Green Day are unashamed advocates of melody.
Steven Hoggett's choreography also retains its ability to surprise. Convulsive movement is interspersed with mime and jerky ballet, all of it unmistakably channeling the youthful feelings -- of elation, but more often of rage and despair, fear and longing -- that are the heart of the show.
That iron-clad thematic cohesion is the hallmark of Mayer's muscular direction, which goes one better than his innovative work on Spring Awakening.
Whether the cast is engaged in anthems of celebration or scorn, in ballads of love or pain or songs of bitter reckoning, the material connects in such a way as to reawaken the rebellious spirit and freshen the ache of lost innocence in all of us. Seeing American Idiot again, the conviction deepens that this thrilling musical was robbed at the Tonys.