Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 22, 2014
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Book by John Cameron Mitchell. Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Michael Mayer. Scenic design by Julian Crouch. Costume design by Arianne Phillips. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Wigs & make-up design by Mike Potter. Sound design by Tim O'Heir. Projection design by Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions. Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, with Lena Hall, Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, Peter Yanowitz, Shannon Conley.
On the face of it, Mitchell's book shouldn't leave much question about this. The story identifies Hedwig (Harris) as a child of the old East Berlin who escaped Communist rule not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall by way of a sex change (botched, hence the title and name of Hedwig's backup band), a wedding, and a ticket to America. Once there, the marriage dissolved and Hedwig transformed from awkward to fabulous, kindling a singing career of her own and launching an even bigger one for Tommy Gnosis, a one-time lover with whom Hedwig is now on the outs.
There's plenty of heartbreak here, of the artistic and romantic kind, that leaves enough issues unresolved to fuel the 95-minute concert-styled evening. It's further energized by the presence of Yitzhak (Lena Hall), Hedwig's current, ambiguously gendered mate from Croatia, who adds not just a jealous edge but also an urgency to the plot. Both in the couple are struggling in their joint searches for success and themselves, imperiled as much by their questionable self-esteem as the controversy that put them here tonight (Tommy rammed into a bus full of deaf children) as by, well, their questionable ability.
Not that Hedwig is that bad. Her songs, which fuse native American pop, folk, and country with European glam rock, are pretty catchy, in fact. None quite matches the addictive appeal of the wistfully empowering "Wig in a Box" or the aching encouragement of "Wicked Little" town, but from coffeehouse ("The Origin of Love") to hardcore ("The Angry Inch"), with stops everywhere in between, Trask's score is pleasing and often searing, even if you're not a fan of the individual genres sampled.
Therein lies the challenge: How bad is too good for Hedwig? The original production played at the Jane Street Theatre, an out-of-the way dive just off the Hudson River, signifying where Hedwig belongs as far as what she can do and what she is; the plot is crucially kicked forward at several points when opening a door at the rear of the stage reveals the piercing sounds of Tommy in concert. Off-Broadway he was at the Meadowlands; now, as one of a number of textual tweaks, his "Tour of Atonement" is kicking off in Times Square, just a couple of blocks away from the theater.
Though it provides the necessary verisimilitude and immediacy, it also introduces some significant problems. How many performers, even big-name stars, would see playing a Broadway theater as a negative rather than a plus? Yes, Hedwig jokes about, ahem, begging Bob Wankel of the Shubert Organization "on bended knee" for the opportunity to play on the set of the just-closed Hurt Locker: The Musical. But playing a venue of nearly 900 seats in the heart of the Crossroads of the World is a hardship? Really?
Though Mayer has wittily staged the proceedings, making full use of the ridiculous conceit of the musical whose set this band has inherited, he can't overcome the elemental flaw in this production's logic. With Hedwig less a has-been on the way out than a hasn't-yet-been on the way up, the emotional surge that should drive the show is absent. That Hall plays Yitzhak as though Danny Zuko from an animated version of Grease doesn't help; there's no more a tangible bond between performer-within-the-performer and role there than between Yitzhak and Hedwig, another opportunity for feeling squelched.
Harris picks up some of the slack with his performance. Whether decked out in a wig that's more than a little reminiscent of Farrah Fawcett or one that's raw Tina Turner, he expertly wields the character's latent vulnerability to stop you from losing sight of the frightened boy (girl?) beneath the getup. He may not make you forget the reserved intensity of Mitchell, who created the role onstage and preserved it in the 2001 film version, and his singing is certainly not at the same level of accomplishment, but his aching sweetness and deft ad-libbing about everything from drum fills to David Belasco's ghost draw you in.
That same spotless magnetism, however, is also what ensures that Hedwig always comes across as absolutely safe: a post-op transvestite that would have no trouble fitting into legitimate surroundings. That scrubbed-down nature belies both what Hedwig says of herself, and what we're supposed to witness from her, the change that ought to throw cold light and cold water on the decisions that brought her to this low point. Not that the point is low enough for that to work, either. Mayer and Harris are presiding over a Hedwig that's good enough to run and clean enough to not offend, but not cohesive enough to make sense.
Perhaps nothing defines this Hedwig and the Angry Inch better than the gag that awaits you upon entering the theater. Draped over every third seat or so is a mock eight-page Playbill for Hurt Locker: The Musical that lists the cast (Michael Cerveris, a replacement Hedwig once upon a time, and Taye Diggs among them), some appalling-sounding musical numbers, and a few terrifying other details (the show apparently ran six hours and four minutes, with three intermissions). It's one of this theatre season's funniest pieces of writing, and every word is worth devouring.
Luckily, the jokes it contains are broad enough for everyone to get. But should Hedwig, or anything with which she comes in contact, be quite this populist? For what's supposed to be an acquired taste, this time around she's certainly content with being as bland as her surroundings allow.