She's back…whether you like it or not. And really, you'd have to be a pretty bland person not to like this head rush of a rock musical, now making its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre. After premiering off-Broadway in 1998, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch became a downtown sensation, going on to play 857 performances at the Jane Street Theatre. It spawned an award-winning film in 2001, helping to spread Hedwig's message of self-acceptance and rock rebellion far and wide. Now, television and Broadway favorite Neil Patrick Harris dons a feathered blonde wig and a pair of golden boots with six-inch heels to play everyone's favorite East German transsexual rock star. The show is just as vital as ever, but on a much grander scale.
The premise of the show is a one-night-only concert of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a band of Eastern Bloc rockers who travel the country shadowing Tommy Gnosis, the biggest name in entertainment since Lady Gaga. The band's lead singer, Hedwig Robinson (Harris), insists that Tommy (her former lover) stole all her songs. While Tommy gives the concert of the decade in Times Square, Hedwig tells her side of the story within the confines of the Belasco.
In a 2010 interview, Mitchell admitted to toying with the idea of having Hedwig make her Broadway debut on the decaying set of Rent (a running joke in the film) at the Nederlander Theatre. "The main thing we’ve learned about this show is that it has to take place in the theater it’s in at the moment," said lead producer David Binder. "If it’s in a Broadway theater, it’s going to be set in a Broadway theater."
While Rent is long gone, Mitchell has found a new shell for his "theatrical hermit crab": The Broadway debut of Hedwig takes place on the set of the fictitious film-to-stage floppola Hurt Locker: The Musical. Shards of car and tire hang, suspended in the air beyond a proscenium of broken cinder block, as if the "fourth wall" were an actual wall irrevocably burst open by a giant Kool-Aid Man. Through that artificial divide, once as insurmountable as the Berlin Wall, springs forth Hedwig, the East German émigré with an appetite for rock and roll…among other things: "We are here tonight courtesy of Bob Wankel of the Shubert Organization," Hedwig informs the audience after blowing us away with the powerhouse show opener "Tear Me Down." "On bended knee did I beg Bob for my Broadway debut. He told me not to talk with my mouth full."
Mitchell has made some very smart updates to the book, firmly setting this Hedwig in 2014 without betraying the post-Soviet angst of the story: Hedwig was born "Hansel Schmidt", a German boy who grew to love American rock music from the other side of the Iron Curtain. When he was 26, Hansel met a U.S. Army sergeant who agreed to marry him and take him back to the States, provided he got a sex change operation. In 1988, Hansel became Hedwig and left Berlin forever. In 1989, the Wall fell and Hedwig was penniless and divorced in Junction City, Kansas. That's when she started writing her best songs.
Stephen Trask's now-classic score remains mostly intact, with the only major difference being a new rock arrangement (as opposed to country) of the song "Sugar Daddy." The band will shake you to the core with its powerful sound. This is not a show for people with an aversion to loud music. Unfortunately, this occasionally causes lyrics to get lost. The first half of the show suffers from balance issues. (It recovers later in the set with some of the softer songs.) At an average rock show, you'd expect to catch only half of the words, but if you're telling a story with those words, it's a matter of some urgency. Still, director Michael Mayer has succeeded in creating a club-rock experience inside a Broadway theater, no short order for a grand old Tiffany-lit house like the Belasco.
Harris practically blows out those stained-glass lamps as he assaults the audience with his petulant rock spirit. He leans over the stage to make out with a guy in the front row and yanks the glasses off another innocent bystander, only to lick the lenses before returning them. This bad-boy theatricality, smacking of such greats as David Bowie and Mick Jagger, is backed up by an irrepressible voice. Harris belts out hit after hit of this hard-charging score: "Angry Inch" is particularly fierce, as Hedwig rampages over a cardboard Fallujah like a tarted-up Godzilla.
Lena Hall gives an astounding performance as Yitzak, Hedwig's husband and backup singer. As Hall gave the curtain speech, the person seated next to me whispered, "Is that a man or a woman?" Hall moves with the overcompensating butch swagger of a 15-year-old dude who just recently switched from briefs to boxers. Yet behind her shy boy exterior is a powerful set of pipes. Her simple and earnest rendition of "The Long Grift" is coated with an aching desperation reminiscent of Amanda Palmer at her most vulnerable.
There's no better rock experience on Broadway right now than Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Arguably, there's no greater rock musical. This is your best bet for an evening on Broadway that is simultaneously smart, irreverent, and fist-pumping fun.