Critic's Notebook: John Cameron Mitchell in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
The co-creator of the 1998 musical steps into the Tony-winning Broadway revival, returning to the transgender role that earned him enduring cult worship.
For hardcore devotees of scrappy downtown New York alternative theater, the chance to see John Cameron Mitchell reprise the title role he originated in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is akin to old-school show queens being handed the opportunity to watch Mary Martin in South Pacific or Ethel Merman in Gypsy. Who could resist? And in a pop-cultural landscape dominated by youth, the prospect of a 51-year-old man becoming the "slip of a girlyboy from communist East Berlin," who grew into an "internationally ignored song stylist" in this most transformative of musicals is its own reward. If Mitchell's return has come with pain and sacrifice, that seems entirely in keeping with Hedwig's personal Via Crucis.
Mitchell is now more than 20 years older than when he and composer Stephen Trask first began showcasing the material that evolved through band gigs and alt-cabaret dates into the exhilaratingly trashy 1998 post-punk musical. He's a decade senior to Neil Patrick Harris, who opened the 2014 Broadway revival, winning a Tony for the role; and seven years older than Michael C. Hall, the closest of his immediate predecessors in age. (Andrew Rannells also did an interim stint, and Darren Criss is up next.)
That makes it all the more bittersweet that Mitchell is now performing the part in a knee brace and with the use of a crutch after sustaining an injury during a Feb. 7 performance. He soldiered on for the rest of that week before being forced to take a week off, returning on Feb. 24 and trading Hedwig's gold glamrocker boots for less perilous bedazzled hi-tops.
But if the tradeoff is a less physical turn than some who have donned the iconic Farrah-flip wig before him — no more Whitesnaking, cooter slams or scrambling up the walls — the compensation is Mitchell's unequivocal ownership of the role. (Note to audience members: Limited mobility does not prevent the star from singling out a lucky front-row patron for "car wash" privileges.) Plus, it's somehow appropriate that Hedwig should have visible war wounds to match the emotional carnage she displays with heroic bitterness.
The injury is amusingly incorporated into the show as the result of an attack by an assailant in a Michael C. Hall mask at the Sixth Avenue Dress Barn. "You may have noticed that I'm working on my last leg here," deadpans Hedwig. "What I'm trying to say, ladies and gentlemen, is that tonight you’re seeing the show with the original cast." Being rendered "transplegic" forces the irascible Hedwig to depend even more on her common-law husband Yitzhak (the fabulous Lena Hall), frequently shrieking "Crate!" whenever her banged-up leg requires support.
But in every way that matters, the performance remains limber and fully lived-in, animated by all the scary sensuality, the ravages of anger and abandonment, and the creeping pathos that Mitchell traditionally brought to the role, both on the stage and in his 2001 screen version. While Harris performed the part with an insouciant wink to remind us he was in there, Mitchell is all Hedwig, all the time.
His vocals, fittingly, are more rock 'n' roll than Broadway, nowhere more so than in the blistering rage of "Angry Inch." He channels a thrilling, basso rumble into "The Origin of Love," seeming to conjure the animated images of flames, waves, thunderbolts and giants with his expressive hands. He's raunchy and irreverent on "Sugar Daddy," that stiff leg assisting in the cheeky impulse to toss in a hint of goosestepping. There's defiant, even joyous resilience in his "Wig in a Box" as Hedwig undergoes a dazzling onstage makeover and becomes a furry butterfly with a Nina Hagen lioness shag. His "Wicked Little Town" is haunted and hurt. And Mitchell's powerful crescendo on "Midnight Radio," building to the liberating refrain of "Lift up your hands!," will always be the definitive version of that anthem of a damaged diva finding completeness through her music.
While the hallmark of any great Hedwig is the actor's ability to make scripted banter appear spontaneous, Mitchell is clearly relishing his return to the signature role by adding his own fresh flourishes to the character's stream-of-consciousness reflections.
There are amusing notes of LGBT political empowerment in lines such as the mention that Obama had a transgender nanny as a child in Indonesia ("You can Google that shit"); or Hedwig's nod to James Franco ("All the privileges of homosexuality and none of the responsibilities, James"). There's also new audience interaction, sparked by a glance at Hedwig's bejeweled iPhone: "My grinder is blowing up! I had no idea we were so close to a seminary." The signal was then traced on press night to a gym bunny sitting down front, who was identified as "America’s Next Top Bottom" before being summoned onto the stage for some good-natured public humiliation.
Mitchell's Hedwig is far more discursive in her reminiscences than past performers, notably in a funny absurdist account of the demise of her late manager, Phyllis Stein. But if those digressions end up padding the show by ten minutes, nobody was complaining during the curtain call's outpouring of love. The battle-scarred though never broken original Hedwig had earned it.
— John Cameron Mitchell appears in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belsaco Theatre in New York through April 26; Darren Criss takes over the role for a 12-week engagement, starting April 29.