Thursday, September 30, 2010

Guest Blogger: St. Jimmy, St. Jimmy, St. Jimmy

Today, I'd like to welcome a special guest blogger, my friend and theatrical companion, Mike.  As you will read below, he is a HUGE American Idiot fan.  While I admire the show, and really enjoy the Original Cast Recording, I think seeing it twice was enough for me.  Mike, on the other hand is a relatively frequent visitor.  Given this week's big news that Billie Joe Armstrong himself would be taking over the role of St. Jimmy, I was not surprised to find an email from Mike saying he was going again!  (I have done the same thing to see specific performers in next to normal and Billy Elliot.  Thanks, Mike, for sharing your insights on not just Armstrong, but two other St. Jimmys as well.

My friend and constant theatrical companion Jeff has kindly offered me some space here to weigh in on my favorite current Broadway show, American Idiot. (Well, it's neck and neck with Next To Normal, for which I share Jeff's affection, but let's just say that American Idiot hits me in a special, visceral way like no other show I've seen.) As you can see from his reviews, Jeff doesn't fully share my enthusiasm for American Idiot, and I suspect he thinks I'm a bit crazy to have paid to see it four times. Nonetheless, I am thrilled an honored to accept his invitation.

Specifically, my task is to evaluate the three performers I've seen in the splashy, creepy role of St. Jimmy. As you may know, St. Jimmy is the dark and glamorous friend - or represents the dark and tawdry part of the psyche - of our protagonist, Johnny. As Johnny tries to make his way alone in the big city, to find love and success and an outlet for his strangely muted brand of rage, St. Jimmy alternately commands and cajoles him into a different kind of life where pain, rage and pleasure all give way to the numbing power of intravenous drugs. There's plenty of room for personal style in the role, and so it is that I saw a different St. Jimmy pouring forth from each of these three talented performers: the role's originator, Tony Vincent (whom I saw at an April 3 preview performance and then again on May 16); his understudy, Andrew Call (September 18); and the show's co-creator and legendary Green Day front man, Billie Joe Armstrong (September 29; all of the performances were at 8:00 pm).

Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy

First, a tiny caveat: my seats for each of these performances were in totally different parts of a rather large theater. As it happens, I was sitting toward the front of the mezzanine both times I saw Tony Vincent in the role. The night Andrew Call went on as St. Jimmy, I had splurged for a center orchestra seat just a few rows from the stage. But then I went cheap and bought a balcony ticket for Wednesday's performance with Billie Joe. I don't think any of this diminishes my ability to weigh the merits of each performance, but I thought I'd toss a little disclaimer out there.

Tony Vincent, who originated the role last fall at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and re-created it for Broadway this spring, brings unmatched energy to his performance. Vincent's interpretation is the least subtle and most commanding of the three, and certainly the loudest. (That is not in the least intended as criticism.) Terrifying and dismissive, he doesn't just lead Johnny astray - he bludgeons him and drags him astray. Vincent shines most in the ultra-high-energy songs given to him in this energetic score: when he bursts down the stairs singing the breathless "St. Jimmy," there is no question who is in command (of the stage and, more importantly, of Johnny's fate). When that command seems to be slipping later in the show, he easily re-claims it with another song that showcases Vincent's uniquely imposing voice and demeanor, "Know Your Enemy." Vincent is just a tad less effective when he's not singing, and his emotional range is narrower than it could be, but overall this is a role that calls for a take-no-prisoners performance and Vincent does not disappoint. (I think he deserved a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor; at any rate, I know he gave a more effective and appropriate performance than one other nominated actor I saw during the season.)

John Gallagher, Jr. and Tony Vincent

Andrew Call

Andrew Call, whom I had already come to greatly admire as a standout member of American Idiot's very active ensemble, proved to be an ideal understudy for St. Jimmy. In fact, he's close to being an ideal St. Jimmy, period.  I hope you'll forgive me for observing, first of all, that Andrew is one handsome young man and that he made an awfully pretty St. Jimmy.  Much more importantly, though, his take on this role was persuasive in almost every detail.  While he can't match Vincent in his vocal delivery of those power punk moments, his nuance and emotional commitment during quieter scenes, especially the moving "Last Night On Earth," easily make up for it. And Call's acting was simply superb: with each glance, upturned eyebrow, and flirtatious caress, he revealed a very complex relationship with his victim.  This St. Jimmy has a kind of contempt for Johnny even as he seems to almost love him; he is at once dismissive, seductive, and terrified of losing Johnny.  I hope his performance has been seen by a casting director or two; if so, I imagine he won't be an understudy in his next show.

Andrew Call

As might be expected given his rock-and-roll background, Billy Joe Armstrong's performance diverged sharply from the other two. His St. Jimmy stood out as playful and, at times, almost joyful. (I'd like to think that's a reflection of the obvious joy he has shown at every step of the show's development.) What I saw on stage at the St. James was definitely not a mere recreation of a Green Day performance. For one thing, his vocal delivery was much fuller and less nasal than what you'd hear on the concert stage; for another, his demeanor leaned more towards Kiss than Green Day. All of this suited the genre, and the character, quite well.
Billie Joe Armstrong

That's not to say that his performance was ideal. While Vincent's and Call's vocals were nearly always crystal clear, Armstrong's lyrics were often difficult to understand, perhaps a result of the volume at which he performed the songs. And while I do not begrudge him one second of the extensive wild applause he received after each song - especially considering his role in creating the work - he went a bit too far on his final exit when he waved to the audience, provoking cheers at a point when the dramatic focus should have been shifting elsewhere. Still, Armstrong fit into the show seamlessly, having no problem at all with choreography or blocking, and his juicy, unrestrained performance was, in the end, quite satisfying.

Armstrong with Stark Sands, John Gallagher, Jr.,
Christina Sajous and Rebecca Naomi Jones at
the American Idiot curtain call on
Tuesday, September 28.

Finally, a comment or two is in order regarding St. Jimmy's physical appearance for each performance. Tony Vincent was decked out in full goth/s&m regalia, complete with black combat boots and chains galore, and sported a radical half-shaved, half-jet black hairdo. Andrew Call wore the same costumes and approximated the hairstyle effect by sweeping his dirty blond bangs down over his eyes, leaving a buzzed layer exposed on the side. But Billie Joe went with the punk/hipster look he's now famous for, with canvas shoes, tight black jeans, white jacket, and dark spiky hair.

In the end, I won't be coy about the fact that I appreciated the subtlety of Andrew Call's performance the most. But Tony Vincent is a vocal force of nature, and of course no experience could replace seeing Billie Joe perform in a work that, without a hint of sarcasm, he has lovingly called "my baby." You can see him on stage through Sunday evening's performance, after which the understudies (Call and Joshua Kobek) will cover the role of St. Jimmy until Vincent returns on October 12. My suggestion is that you go to right now and make sure you get tickets to see all of these terrific performances! (Not that I'm an obsessed fanboy or anything.)

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