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Billie Joe, Meet Bernadette: How the Two Best Performances of 2009… Happened in 2010

Proof that it happened.

Everyone bitched so much about the past Broadway season. The new musicals were lackluster (Memphis) or obscure (Fela!) or alienating (American Idiot). The revivals were flat (A Little Night Music) or dated (La Cage).

So of course there was some surprise when 2009/2010 Broadway season, now officially over to the tune of 5 months, suddenly got really interesting. It was a little slow on the uptake, but the events of the last few weeks have more or less redeemed last season, even if it did take until this season to do it.

Suddenly there were a couple of marquee-worthy performances on Broadway. Not B-listers in search of cred, or Hollywood refugees pandering to some producer’s desperation for a name above the title. But real stars, ones who can actually sing and act, and whose casting in a Broadway show makes complete, logical sense.

Enter Bernadette Peters, who replaced Tony-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music in August, and who is currently giving the single best performance on Broadway. As the vivacious, past-it actress Desiree Armfeldt, she brings a searching vulnerability—and taut-as-a-bowstring delivery—to the role. Her “Send in the Clowns” is the best on Broadway in recent memory, too, and we had about eight versions to choose from. Peters’s Desiree isn’t just nostalgic or arch at the thought of lost love and missed opportunity. She’s shattered. Smart enough to see her mistakes but only in hindsight, the entire song reads like a furtive glance backward—an inevitable instant of regret in a passionate life. It’s a remarkable performance, and the audience is utterly silent throughout, as though the whole rest of the show has been nothing more than a jaunty warmup.

The other performance that turned heads on Broadway—or maybe spun them around a couple of times—was Billie Joe Armstrong’s in American Idiot. Playing the role of the lead character’s drug-pushing alter ego, St. Jimmy, this was so much more than textbook stunt casting. It was an actual performance, not just an extended rockstar flail or a Green Day concert transposed onto a Broadway stage.

Approaching St. Jimmy as a figment of Johnny’s imagination—as his sleazily overblown alter ego—Armstrong played St. Jimmy as a foil to Rebecca Naomi Jones’s Whatshername, as though the two were locked in a battle for Johnny’s soul. It was an enormous performance—bug-eyed and frenetic and loud enough to match the thunderous audience response, and utterly appropriate.

Armstrong’s run is done and Peters’s is ending. But for last season, they helped to complete some unfinished business—and add a couple of truly inspiring performances to its otherwise spotty legacy.

Photo: The Craptacular

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