American Smartie

"Whatsername" is making a name for herself.

Even as her character is relegated to the nameless, faceless fast crowd strung out on struggles, Rebecca Naomi Jones has the jones for what she is doing — and what she does is spark "American Idiot" into the stellar stage of brilliant rock opera for which even "Tommy" would have left his pinball wizardry behind.

As the better half of a self-destructive boy "toy" — her Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) tinkers at life with less gusto than he brings to his guitar — "Whatserame" is the rhyme and reason of why this messed-up musician should exchange his needle for knee-bending gratitude of her love. She is a beta blocker for this alpha male's stinted and stunted self-evoked heartache, going from punk to pills to pallbearer for his own death wish.

As she undulates an urgent sensuality on stage with a wattage that turns up the house lights on an exciting talent, "Whatsername" knows what her destiny will be too late in the game, shut out by the shallow nowhere-man her love has become, saving herself in whatever safe place exists for someone whose Johnny-on-the-spot has turned love into a stun gun.

A limo-lux delivery of the lyrics comes naturally to the 29-year-old daughter of the man who put the Cadillacs into gear decades ago as its leader — and Jones relishes the idea that her late father would enjoy the fact that his '50s doo-wop legacy evolved into his kid's do-punk breakout role in this great Green Day musical at Broadway's St. James Theatre.

"I'm lucky he was around when I did 'Passing Strange,' " says Jones, a jolt of joy in the 2008 award-winning musical whose distinctive sassy style made for strange bedfellows with staid Broadway.

Passing moments from her past might seem strange to anyone living outside New York. But this Manhattan-raised musical meteor never heard the hue and cry common in other parts of the country about someone born into a biracial family. As half-African-American (father), half-Jewish (mother), her roots are clearly showing.

"Growing up in Manhattan, there was no big deal made" about her ethnicity, says Jones. "After all, I grew up in an atmosphere of a city full of artists and people of different combinations."

Cracking the code of any controversy came later in life: "I didn't realize how unique it was until I went away to college in North Carolina and came to understand — not that there was any hatred directed at me, no, not at all — that New York was not necessarily the real world."

It's her world — and welcome to it! Or was it … unwelcome?

"Things can be subtle," she muses. "As I've gotten older, I look back at my childhood and see how some of it was living in the margins."

Yet she didn't feel marginalized, she emphasizes: "I never felt left out or as a freak."

Nothing unusual in her choice of work and award-worthy turns: "How lucky I feel to be in these beautiful plays," she says of her bio brimming with off-Broadway and Broadway credits (as well as the Spike Lee film version of "Passing Strange"), "all about identity, family, religion, sexuality."

Hot credits for such a cool actress who concedes she once did think of theater as a nirvana for nerds. "Yeah, well, it is," she says with a laugh.

But then, nerds nourish society these days, it seems. "If you commit your life to working in theater, are steadfast about it, unrelenting, well, it may seem uncool" but "I feel cool in a whole different way."

And she warms up while talking about family — "I just had lunch with my mother," a photographer who helped give her daughter a dimensional sense of life's big picture as a child — and regrets that this year, Passover, "one of my favorite holidays," got short shrift because of her production schedule.

Next year in Jerusalem? Well, at least in New York. "There will be matzah next year," she avows.

She has found her way, this richly protean performer with a vroom of a voice and vixenish appeal that has made her "Whatsername" a woman of unquestionable valor.

"I love the fact that 'Whatsername' is in a 'who knows?' place," affirms Jones, "but I feel she has put herself in a direction after all — that she's on her way."

Punk This!

"American idiot" is the smart phone of American musicals.

Make that the smart phonics.

Lyrically livid, musically mordant, this brazen Broadway icon-bashing 90-minute rock rage is the anti-"Oklahoma," a beautiful mourning where little is OK.

But … a punk rock Broadway musical? Are we being punk'd? Ashton Kutcher is nowhere to be seen.

But, thankfully, the rockin' remnants of Green Day's revolutionary CD are, the on-edge effort of the same name echoing on stage with the gratifyingly musical disaffection of ungratified youth post-9/11.

Don't know where Mrs. Robinson has gone, but a nascent nation of lost souls is still turning their lonely eyes to someone … anyone … who can provide answers without angst.

Rage against the state? The state of the rage here on stage at the St. James is a throwback to the '60s — maybe even the 1860s — where self-emptiness is filled with personal black holes. And in this post-posturing age, when young people are questing for impossible dreams, the triple-Tony Award-nominated "American Idiot" — with a creative team dancing to the dynamics of director Michael Mayer and psyche-delicious design by Christine Jones — may be their spring awakening as to where to find them.

A brilliant missile of a musical in which goth goes head-banging with a star-spangled splash, this is not your grandmother's Oldsmobile … hell, it's not even her Harley.

What it is is a ride that Broadway has never seen before: Weave "Hair" with Jheri curls from a wigged-out new millennium of flying planes into safe buildings and "American idiot" is not so snarky, after all. How much clearer could Green Day's intent be than by adding some elements from its breakthrough "21st Century Breakdown" album to maximize the meltdown scenario?

But could the punk rockers' 12-million selling CD of "American Idiot" also sell Broadway on music not normally its muse, or would it make for Big Apple apoplexy? This is one of the few Everykid musicals to not so much knock on Broadway's door as bash it in, mainlining unhinged youth into the aging art form. The music loudly proclaims the characters' independence, even as they show their need for crutches at crucial times.

Thank you for the music? About time Generation Kvetch gets its own punked-out, put-upon, play-it-out platform that just so happens to be center stage of a Broadway theater where the diametrically different hell-raising "Hello Dolly" once reigned.

She put her hand in here, Green Day put its hand in there … some 45 years later, Dolly Gallagher Levi, punk matchmaker, has finally met her modern-day match.



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