If David Belasco’s ghost really does haunt the balcony of his namesake theater off Sixth Avenue, as Neil Patrick Harris declares at the start of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” he is, by now, both deaf and blind.
That’s not such a bad thing. If you’ve gotta lose two key senses, I can think of no more auspicious way to bid them auf wiedersehen than via the 95-minute stretch of ear-splitting rock and aggressive strobe-lighting that is the new take on “Hedwig,” the John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask musical about a rock-and-roll band fronted by an East German singer disfigured in a botched sex change operation.
An Off-Broadway sensation in the late 1990s, written by and starring Mitchell, and then a cult film with the one-time Army-brat again in the lead, “Hedwig” has begun a new life in a commercial—what what?!?—Broadway theater. Helmed by Michael Mayer (“American Idiot,” “Spring Awakening”), this production waited roughly a half decade just for its new star, the four-time Tony host and sitcom actor, to become available.
With her new show, for which we are the invited audience, “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig Robinson has booked into a theater just deserted by “Hurt Locker: The Musical,” which closed “during intermission” of its first performance. The post-invasion Iraqi war zone—with a bombed-out auto carcass at center stage—serves as setting for Hedwig’s “one night only” concert, with husband Yitzhak (Lena Hall, of “Kinky Boots”) and band, the Angry Inch (Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz).
The main question I had going into “Hedwig” was how a show built on outsider-appeal and intimacy would play in a colossal Rialto venue, where just weeks ago Mark Rylance led a troupe of actors also cross-dressing … but in the service of Shakespeare. Harris quells any doubts just after his extraordinary entrance, via parachute: “We are here tonight courtesy of Bob Wankel of the Shubert Organization. On bended knee did I beg Bob for my Broadway debut …” What follows would be out-of-bounds here, but you see, it may as well be the Jane Street Theatre.
With respect due Harris, there’s a tentativeness to his performance in the show’s hallowed opening number, “Tear Me Down”—could jumping onto car bumpers in platform heels possibly distract him from singing? But what kinetic energy! Harris says he’s lost 20 pounds for the role, and he’s clearly gained them back in Maybelline. The actor’s thighs look as if they might burst through his torn black fishnets.
Elevated in those heels, and more nimble than any 40-year-old should rightfully be, Harris evokes a cross-dressing daddy longlegs spider, crooning through “The Origin of Love,” during which animations familiar from the film (such as a broken eye) are projected onto a scrim in front of the actors.
By the third song, “Sugar Daddy,” in which Hedwig tells of meeting the American G.I. who seduces him with Gummi Bears, Harris has settled into his stride, and the evening veers into places erotic and angry—no moreso than during an extended sequence with strobe-lighting at the conclusion of “Exquisite Corpse.” It sets up Harris’ transformation to Tommy Gnosis, the successful rock star protege who has turned his back on his combustible teacher.
General elements of Mitchell’s story remain intact, but with fun updates. The story is set up from the beginning to explain that Hedwig came to national attention in a tabloid scandal that saw her and Tommy colliding with a school bus “full of deaf children.” Of the accident details, she says: “TMZ got it right.” Later, explaining the divorce from his sugar daddy G.I., Hedwig says Luther “ran off with that bag boy he met on christianmingle.com. Or whatever we called it back then. Church.”
The astounding Neil Patrick Harris has no understudy, and how he’ll sustain the intensity required to play Hedwig without selling his soul to the devil is anyone’s guess. The penultimate number, which has him reprising “Wicked Little Town” as Tommy, shirtless, and with a bold silver cross on his forehead, was phenomenal and seemed to leave both Harris and our audience spent. So effective is Lena Hall’s transformation at the musical’s end, I considered that she had departed the theater and been replaced by Lady Gaga.
As with any piece that is essentially a straight monologue by a single person, there are places where “Hedwig” slows down. But “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is still the finest musical you’re going to see this year about a transgendered Berliner with a chip on her shoulder, and it only further burnishes the crown on the head of the reigning king, and now queen of Broadway.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” with an open-ended run at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. Tickets: $47-$142. Call Tele-charge, 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn