Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Neil Patrick Harris in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
Lift up your hands!

Neil Patrick Harris reigns as the transgender East Berlin rocker who lands on the New York stage via a Kansas trailer park in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's cult musical.

NEW YORK -- The big question from the start was whether Neil Patrick Harris could sing the hard-driving glam rock-meets-punk score of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And would the former Doogie Howser be able to go as far out there as the title role of the embittered East German singer with the botched sex-reassignment surgery demands? The swift answer on both counts is that Harris is beyond fabulous, holds nothing back and plays it any way but safe in Michael Mayer's exhilarating production.

As to the other question of how the scrappy, subversive 1998 cult performance piece about gender identity, transformation and pop mythology would sit on Broadway, the show, its protagonist and her pulse-pounding band tear up the Belasco stage like they own it. If screaming rock concert-style veneration is not your thing, stay home.

The musical was developed by writer John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask through alt-cabaret and nightclub gigs, before finding its final form in the version that opened Off Broadway in 1998 and played for over two years. Mitchell originated the title role, doubling as Tommy Gnosis, the military-brat who becomes Hedwig's rock-god betrayer. The show's devoted following grew further with Mitchell's 2001 screen version.

But Hedwig has never been given its full due as an influential rule-breaker among rock musicals, which makes Mayer the ideal director to reshape this unique vehicle for its uptown bow. He staged both the visceral Spring Awakening musical and Green Day's American Idiot. That show owed a loving debt to Mitchell and Trask's glitter baby in much the same way Hedwig owed a debt to the Who's Tommy, acknowledged here with a cheeky wink.

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Mitchell's inspired rewriting explains how "internationally ignored song stylist" Hedwig has stumbled from her usual dive venues onto an actual Broadway stage. And Shubert Organization president Bob Wankel (Broadway's landlord) is a tremendous sport for allowing his name to be used as a strategic step in her promotion. We learn that the opportunity arose when Hurt Locker: The Musical opened the previous evening and closed during intermission. (Get down on the floor if you have to and find one of the discarded fake Playbills for the six-hour epic, stacked with hilarious in-jokes.)

That amusing conceit also explains Julian Crouch's delirious set design -- a wrecked car with a tangle of parts suspended mid-explosion, flanked by bombed-out buildings. Hedwig flies in like a drag paratrooper before stripping down to her trailer-trashy performance ensemble of stonewash patchwork denim, with daisy dukes under a mini scrawled with the words, "Yankee Go Home … With Me." Gold platform ankle boots, ratty fishnets and signature Farrah flip complete the look.

In the killer opening number, "Tear Me Down," Hedwig likens herself to the wall that divided her German birthplace. Harris struts and vamps like David Bowie at the height of his early-'70s androgynous phase, while also giving us such classic badass rocker-chick moves as Whitesnaking and cooter slams (I believe those are the technical terms), tonguing the strings of music director Justin Craig's lead guitar for good measure.

"I do love a warm hand on my entrance," deadpans Harris over wild applause, setting the tone for the lewd banter threaded throughout the show. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, except that he's a smart enough performer to make it less about himself than about Hedwig, who is her own divinely tawdry creation.

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In her triumphant closing anthem, "Midnight Radio," she salutes the goddesses: "Here's to Patti and Tina and Yoko, Aretha, and Nona and Nico and me." Earlier, she acknowledges "the American Masters" that shaped her as a singer -- Toni TenilleDebbie Boone, Ann Murray -- as well as "the crypto-homo rockers" -- Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bowie. Music buffs will enjoy dissecting the influences that have informed both the character and the performance, from Debbie Harry to Courtney Love, with a splash of transvestite punk rocker Jayne County. Mitchell and Trask's droll take on recent pop history is one of this musical's many supplementary delights.

But Hedwig is more than a mock 'n' roll concert by an act that made it to Broadway thanks to "the jobs we call blow." It's also a long, dark night of the soul, during which the proximity of ex-boyfriend Tommy Gnosis, playing a massive show down the block in Times Square, puts Hedwig in a reflective mood.

Harris smoothly marries Borscht Belt shtick with a self-serious songspiel style reminiscent of Ute Lemper, spicing his performance with improvisational touches and audience exchanges ranging from flirty asides to a lap-dance. Snugly encased in the character, he recounts the lurid specifics of Hedwig's life, exposing the scars of her painful past.

She began life as Hansel, a self-described "slip of a girlyboy from communist East Berlin" molested by his American G.I. father and neglected by his chilly mother. Another U.S. military man seduced him as a teen, using a trail of gummy bears. In order to accompany the soldier back to Kansas as his bride, Hansel assumed his mother's identity and underwent surgery to become a woman. But that unsuccessful procedure left the newly christened Hedwig with an "angry inch" of indeterminate genitalia, hence the name of her band. Dumped by her husband, she then gets similar treatment from Tommy, who bolts when confronted with Hedwig's "Barbie-doll crotch" and becomes a rock star himself by stealing her songs.

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In less clever hands, a number like "The Origin of Love," drawn from Aristophanes no less, might reek of art school-meets-gender studies. But the beauty of Mitchell and Trask's show is that it takes the strangest of bedfellows -- camp, punk and pathos -- and blends them into something unexpectedly poignant. Mayer's gorgeous staging of that song has Harris framed by animation on a scrim that recalls Emily Hubley's doodles for the film, with images underscoring the lonely search of Hedwig's divided self for completeness.

The songs pump momentum into the narrative, from the raunchy thrill of "Sugar Daddy" to the propulsive rage of "Angry Inch" to the bruised introspection of "Wicked Little Town," one of the loveliest songs written for a musical in the past twenty years. My only complaint about the score is that it's stingy to give us just one karaoke sing-along chorus of "Wig in a Box," an infectious pick-me-up number that plants itself on a loop in your head for days. That song provides Hedwig with a costume and hairdo change, after which she emerges resplendent in fur and Tina Turner mane -- like The Lion King (or Queen) by way of Jem and the Holograms.

Wigs off to costumer Arianne Phillips (who also did the movie) and hair and makeup maestro Mike Potter for their witty work. Kudos also to sound chief Tim O'Heir, who never sacrifices clarity for volume, and to Kevin Adams for lighting that runs from lounge-act intimacy to throbbing arena-scale spectacle.

Playing "straight man" to Harris, Lena Hall is simply wonderful as Hedwig's gender-ambiguous Croatian husband, roadie and backup singer Yitzhak, who emerges like a butterfly from an imprisoning cocoon in the show's unifying final stretch. But this is above all a dazzling showcase role for Harris, who draws on his musical-theater chops, his sitcom timing and his hosting skills with supreme poise while reinventing an iconic character. Sounding great and looking spectacular, both in Hedwig drag and in Tommy's skimpy stage apparel, Harris appears to be having a blast.

The challenge is going to be replacing him when his contract is up in August. I'd be reaching out to Jared Leto, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Michael C. Hall in no particular order, perhaps enlisting Mitchell to reprise the role for hardcore fans in a special-guest run. Just please not Lady Gaga. In the meantime, miss Harris at your peril.

Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York (runs through Aug. 17)

Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Hall, Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, Peter Yanowitz

Director: Michael Mayer

Book: John Cameron Mitchell

Music and lyrics: Stephen Trask

Set designer: Julian Crouch

Lighting designer: Kevin Adams

Costume designer: Arianne Phillips

Sound designer: Tim O'Heir

Projection designer: Benjamin Pearcy

Music director: Justin Craig

Musical staging: Spencer Liff

Presented by David Binder, Jayne Baron Sherman, Barbara Whitman, Latitude Link, Patrick Catullo, Raise the Roof, Paula Marie Black, Colin Callender, Ruth Hendel, Sharon Karmazin, Martian Entertainment, Stacey Mindich, Eric Schnall, The Shubert Organization