Thursday, February 3, 2011

Guest Blogger: American Idiot: Van Hughes x 3 and a New St. Jimmy

Regular readers of this blog know that every once in awhile my best friend Mike puts his two-cents worth in when I need an opinion outside of my own, or in the case of American Idiot, a devotion and love much like my own for next to normal.  Mind you, I don't dislike Idiot, and I listen to the cast recording regularly, but Mike LOVES this show.

Previously, he blogged about the three St. Jimmys he saw: original Tony Vincent, understudy Andrew C. Call, and Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong.  Within minutes of the announcement that Melissa Etheridge was confirmed to play the role for a week, he got a ticket - for last night's performance.  In that time, he discovered that as John Gallagher. Jr. was also on vacation this week, Van Hughes would be playing the angst-filled lead.  We talked about all the different people he's seen in different roles, and figured out that he will have seen Mr. Hughes in all three leading male roles - Johnny, Tunny and Will!

The 4 St. Jimmys: Tony, Andrew, Billie Joe and Melissa

So I figured he just had to blog about that experience, especially in light of my recent "Ask Jeff" blog.  And so, without further blabbing from me... here's Mike...and Van and Melissa!

Last night at the St. James Theatre
(Photo by Mike)

Melissa and Van on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Jeff has once again been so kind as to publish my latest report from Jingletown. That’s right, last night (Feb. 2, 2011) was my sixth trip to American Idiot, currently playing at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. Trip number five was actually only a couple of weeks ago, but when I found out that Melissa Etheridge would be performing as St. Jimmy this week, I knew a quick return visit would be in my future. As a special bonus, it also came to pass that standby extraordinaire Van Hughes would be playing the lead role of Johnny this week; having seen him previously in the roles of Will and Tunny, I was very excited to have the opportunity to complete the trifecta. (Or hat trick, or whatever sports analogy makes sense.) Those two performers will be the subject of my entry today.

In my last set of musings on American Idiot, I compared the three St. Jimmys I had seen at the time (Tony Vincent, Andrew Call, and Billie Joe Armstrong). Compared to all of them, Melissa Etheridge gave the most accomplished vocal performance but was the least compelling as an actor. Regarding her voice, I am indeed suggesting that (in the theater, at least) she outshines even Billie Joe Armstrong, who has sung these songs hundreds of times. Her angry rasp in songs like “St. Jimmy” and “Know Your Enemy” (which all the others do well, too) make a satisfying contrast with a very full, rich, romantic delivery of “Last Night On Earth” (which the others don’t attempt in quite that way). When she sings in unison or in harmony with Johnny or Whatsername, the results are gorgeous, and I noticed little details of harmony I’ve never noticed before. Her lyrical delivery was also the clearest, without sacrificing the stridency that the part calls for: for the first time, I understood every word of “The Death of St. Jimmy.” If I could have an audio recording of any of the six performances I’ve seen, this would surely be the one.

The not so good news is that the non-vocal aspects of Etheridge’s performance lacked a consistent sense of characterization. Each of the three other actors I’ve seen in the role took things in their own direction, but all of them controlled the stage when they were on it, seducing the audience just like St. Jimmy seduces Johnny. Of course, all eyes were on Melissa Etheridge last night, too, but that’s because she’s a rock star and most of the audience came specifically to see her. That might do for a one-week engagement, but if (as I suspect) the producers intend to bring her back for a longer stint, Broadway audiences will expect to see a top-notch performance in its own right. Etheridge sang beautifully but did not give much of a sense of what St. Jimmy is about and why Johnny would be so immediately taken in by her (him?). That’s a problem that needs to be fixed, especially since the character of St. Jimmy is so inherently enigmatic to begin with.

I feel like I’m being a little too negative, because the fact is that I enjoyed her performance a lot and the audience went wild for her. But, as something of a St. Jimmy connoisseur, I can’t help but note the ways she comes up short alongside the ways in which she excels. And, to find some good news within the bad news, note that this was only her second performance, and she did have all the blocking and choreography down pretty well. Most importantly, I did see a glimpse of what could evolve into a unique take on the role; at a couple of points, her St. Jimmy seemed vulnerable and confused, something which could work very well if carefully coordinated with the ebb and flow of Johnny’s own psyche.

Van Hughes, whose previous credits include Hairspray, 9 to 5: The Musical, and Saved (a show Jeff loved and which I regret missing), is the standby for all three of American Idiot’s wayward boys: sedentary stoner/dad Will, vulnerable slacker/soldier Tunny, and all-over-the-map Johnny. I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing him in all three of these roles, so I’ll make a few comments about each of them in turn, in the order in which I saw them.

I saw Hughes’s take on the character of Will back on September 18, 2010 (evening performance) . While this looks to me like the most straightforward of these three roles, it’s also true that the actor playing Will is on stage almost the whole time and has to create some kind of character arc out of a small amount of material. Van Hughes’ take on the role was just as compelling as – and, to be honest, very similar to – that of Michael Esper, the regular performer. The main difference that I noticed was their vocal delivery in “Novacaine” and “Nobody Likes You,” for which Hughes gave a more traditional reading alongside Esper’s deliberately strained thinness. They’re both great in the part, and they even look a little bit alike.

On January 16, 2011 (matinee), Hughes substituted for Stark Sands in the part of Tunny, who runs away with Johnny to the big city but quickly finds himself being seduced into the army. Once again, Hughes pretty much nailed it, but in this case I must admit that Sands has the edge. Some of this is a bit superficial: Stark Sands simply looks the part of someone who has it in him to be both a trouble-making slacker and a clean-cut soldier, whereas Van Hughes’ vaguely edgier look doesn’t fit so well here. The “Extraordinary Girl” flying sequence was noticeably less tight when Hughes was in the role, especially the speed of some of the rotations (but this is something that I’m sure would be corrected if he was in the part long term). And, although I don’t know exactly what the ranges are for the parts, it seemed like Hughes’ voice was not quite as well-suited to the relatively high tessitura of a song like “City of the Dead.” But these are largely quibbles from someone who’s seen this show too many times. Hughes gave a convincing performance as Tunny, wringing out every bit of the heartache and uplift to be found in the journey of Tunny, whose story is somehow both the most tragic and ultimately the most joyous in the show.

Doing what she does best: rocking out at the
curtain call with Michael Esper and Van Hughes!

All-American Boys: St. Jimmy, Will, Johnny and Tunny

Did I just mention quibbles? Don’t look for any in the next few paragraphs, because Van Hughes was absolutely stunning last night in the part of Johnny, a character so hard to describe that I won’t even try (if you’re reading this, I imagine you’ve seen the show anyhow). It would be impossible to give a ranking of his performance with respect to that of regular star John Gallagher, Jr.; it doesn’t even feel quite right to compare them, although I realize that’s what’s called for here. While both performances are finely tuned to the role, their choices are utterly, categorically different, with very different benefits and rewards proceeding from these choices.

If you’ve seen Gallagher in the role of Johnny, you know that he’s created a unique, fascinating character that he plays with amazing discipline and precision. His Johnny is also, I think, rather stylized, a creation perfectly suited to the world of American Idiot but perhaps, I must admit, not very much like any person I’ve met in the real world. (This is not a criticism, and I’ll just leave it at that, since the topic is really Van Hughes.) Anyhow, all of this discipline and precision also means that Gallagher’s performance is tightly constrained – and that’s something that is not at all true of Hughes’s performance, with very affecting results. Hughes attempts to be nothing more than a regular guy, slightly bored and resentful of his home situation, who decides to go on what he thinks will be an exciting journey but which will really end up dragging him down to hell and back. This may not be as tightly wrought or ambitious a characterization as Gallagher’s, but the rewards are just as potent, because Hughes is very convincing in his vivid highs and exquisitely painful lows.

And so Hughes’s Johnny jumps up and down like a little boy on Christmas morning when he’s about to leave with his best buddy on a cross-country trip; when he gets there, he swings his guitar playfully as he delights in the prospect of conquering his new city. (Gallagher’s Johnny, so tightly wound from start to finish, would never do these things, and we wouldn’t want him to). Having established this, Hughes has enabled himself to really bring out the horror of Johnny’s steady descent. And it is a nuanced, incremental one: although the effects of his drug use are starting to change him, Johnny is still basically a happy and optimistic guy when he first makes love with Whatsername; much less so the second time, as St. Jimmy’s influence grows and the drugs become as important as the sex; and still less so by the time he sings “When It’s Time” to her as she sleeps. By the time he’s threatening her with a knife (“Know Your Enemy”), the descent is complete, but much more shocking under Van Hughes’s performance, because this is something we could never have imagined of the young man at the start of the show.

So, to wrap things up, don’t stress if you go to see American Idiot and find a slip of paper in your Playbill with Van Hughes’ name on it. You’re in good hands. And many thanks to Jeff for giving me the opportunity once again to talk about one of my favorite shows.

The Principal Cast of American Idiot

As always, thanks, Mike!

(Photos by Paul Kolnik and Joseph Marzullo)

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  1. my first broadway show was american idiot on jan 14. i saw Van as Tunny too. it was awesome. I'm going back on Feb 26 , just before he takes over Johnny for good. Hope to get back to see that too.

  2. Hi, Allison!

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to write in! Here's a response to your comment from Mike, my guest blogger, who wrote this one!

    Allison -
    I think you made a good choice for your first show! I know you'll enjoy Billie Joe Armstrong on the 26th and I hope to see you for your third visit (and my seventh!) after Van takes over full-time.

  3. I was at the Jan 16th matinee (and evening performance as well). While I was sad that Stark (my favorite of the original cast) was out on vacation, I loved Van's performance as Tunny. But even more so, I loved Van's performance as Johnny, which I saw after he took over the role (my last two times seeing the show). I was thrilled to hear he had been cast as Johnny on the tour.


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