Hedwig and the Angry Inch With John Cameron Mitchell

The man who started it all finally takes the Broadway stage.

John Cameron Mitchell stars in his and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Michael Mayer, at the Belasco Theatre.
John Cameron Mitchell stars in his and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Michael Mayer, at the Belasco Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Super-fans of Hedwig and the Angry Inch were undoubtedly thrilled to learn that John Cameron Mitchell (the author, originator of the role, and star of the 2001 film) was stepping into the Broadway production. Those same fans were likely also dismayed to learn about Mitchell's recent knee injury, which led Michael C. Hall (Dexter) to don the wig and heels for a week while he convalesced. Mitchell is still not fully recovered, but fans should set aside their fears: In classic Hedwig style, Mitchell uses this obstacle in the performance, resulting in an even funnier and fresher show than the one that opened with Neil Patrick Harris nearly a year ago.

For the unfamiliar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the story of internationally ignored East German transgender rocker Hedwig Schmidt and her band, The Angry Inch. Hedwig taught rock sensation Tommy Gnosis everything he knows about love and music, but Gnosis denied the relationship when the two were discovered in a compromising position following a Manhattan car accident. Now Gnosis is attempting to turn this Page Six scandal into a redemption story by holding a massive concert in Times Square. On the same night, Hedwig is giving a show at the Belasco Theatre (on the set of the Broadway flop Hurt Locker: The Musical) to tell her side of the story. It contains an ugly recent development.

As Hedwig, Mitchell strides onstage to perform the hard-charging opening number "Tear Me Down." His right leg is covered in fishnet; the left, a knee brace. After working up a sweat and whipping the audience into a frenzy, Hedwig explains: "I was kneecapped outside the Sixth Avenue Dressbarn," apparently by someone wearing a Michael C. Hall mask.

As Hedwig's boyfriend, Yitzak, Tony winner Lena Hall shuffles around stage bearing a crate on which to rest Hedwig's injured leg. Occasionally, she applies a cold compress. This humiliating nurse routine exacerbates their preexisting sadomasochistic relationship, with Hedwig demanding service and then sneering at Yitzak for offering it so readily. Mitchell's Hedwig is capable of an icy cruelty that inexplicably melts away like March snow. Hall and Mitchell bring a real tenderness to the relationship at key moments, making it apparent that theirs is your garden-variety sub-dom arrangement.

And while Yitzhak waits on Hedwig hand and foot during the monologues, Mitchell still rocks out for the songs, moving every part of his body from his towering wig right down to his bedazzled Chuck Taylors. He squats down and thrusts his pelvis over a woman's face during "Sugar Daddy." He stomps around the stage like GG Allin during "Angry Inch," dousing the front row with Monster energy drink. "I forgot that I was uptown," Hedwig remarks, rolling her eyes at the "stone-faced Russian oligarchs" sitting in the premium seats. "Put down your $75 sippy cups," she says before leading the "Wig in a Box" sing-a-long.

One of the nice things about having the author onstage is that there's no playwright fuming that the performer's ad-libs are ruining his script (and secretly wishing he had written them). Mitchell is famously accommodating with all the Hedwigs, helping them to tailor a show to their own strengths and wit. Mitchell's lines are so fresh, however, that parts of the show feel like a racy stand-up routine. Hedwig shares her opinions of Americans ("You have no idea how important you once were"), the Meatpacking District ("newly annoying"), and even James Franco ("all the privileges of homosexuality and none of the responsibility"). Mitchell's mind is firing in multiple directions at once, all of them hilarious.

Yet he breaks down that comic exterior as the show progresses, letting the heartbreak of Hedwig's story flow out like blood from a picked-away scab. Mitchell's Hedwig exudes a barely contained emotional trauma guarded by an acid wit. She's attempting to maintain a sense of dignity in thoroughly undignified trappings, much like we all are. Hedwig's line to Tommy Gnosis, "That's what I have to work with," takes on a new resonance here as we see Mitchell thriving in adversity and sashaying across the stage in a leg brace.

"I might never do it again," Mitchell said about his performance as Hedwig in a recent interview with TheaterMania. Let's hope that like Barbara Streisand and Cher before him, Mitchell is simply the diva who cried "farewell" without really meaning it.

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