Before launching into the traditional "American Idiot" encore Friday night, Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong smiled and joked, "This is the part where we're going to start the whole show over from the beginning."

The amazing part is that the "American Idiot" cast, which is mostly intact from the Tony- winning musical's opening last year, looked like they could easily do it again.

The show is still taxing - both emotionally, as it reveals the struggles of growing up in post-9/11 suburbia, and physically through the striking, distinctive choreography. But the return of Armstrong, who wrote the rock opera's music and lyrics with his band, and wrote the book with director Michael Mayer, seemed to give the production a renewed sense of urgency. (The first part of Armstrong's run ended last night; he will perform Jan. 18-30 and Feb. 10-27.)

His portrayal of St. Jimmy - the mysterious figure who lures the emotionally conflicted Johnny, played masterfully by John Gallagher Jr., into a self-destructive world of drugs - changes the show on many levels.


ST. JIMMY IS LESS CREEPY. The affable Armstrong makes St. Jimmy look like a fun guy. He makes Johnny's decline seem far more reasonable than when Tony Vincent, who originated the St. Jimmy role, played it, though Vincent's dark, scheming portrayal fit in better with the show's broader themes of manipulation.

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HE BRINGS THE STAR POWER. In a show where so much of the fine ensemble cast is trying to play decidedly ordinary people, Armstrong gets to turn up his magnetism even beyond the regular rock-star level he uses when headlining stadiums because the character calls for it. It's also quite a treat to hear his powerful voice in the theater's smaller confines, making "Last Night on Earth" that much more poignant and "Know Your Enemy" even more potent.


HE RAISES THE STAKES. Armstrong's return will, no doubt, introduce some Green Day fans to Broadway and hopefully introduce Broadway fans to the art of punk rock. The cast is clearly ready to make a great impression, as the whole production has been fine-tuned for maximum effectiveness - from Gallagher's twitchy likability to Michael Esper's touching delivery of "Give Me Novacaine" and the haunting new costuming for the anthem "21 Guns."WHAT "American Idiot"

WHERE St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., Manhattan

INFO $49-$137; 212-239-6200;; Armstrong returns to the cast Jan. 18-30 and Feb. 10-27.

BOTTOM LINE The "Idiot" becomes the teacher