New York City Theater
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
She descends from the flies like a demonic angel evicted from heaven – ratty yet glam, tarty yet wholesome, stockings torn, mini-skirt frayed, a huge blonde wig clinging to her head. Or maybe she’s a savior parachuting into what looks like a bombed-out setting, a ruined landscape. “The longitude and the latitude of hands on my body,” she says. “These are the only clues I have to who I am.” She is Hedwig, once Hansel, born male in the eastern half of the divided city of Berlin, now transgender, belonging who knows where. And who knows to whom.
She / He is the eponymous center of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the vicious yet somehow cozy punk rock musical that had its origins way off-Broadway in 1998, was made into a 2001 film and is now ensconced in Broadway’s historic Belasco Theater. With the versatile Neil Patrick Harris giving a smashing performance that almost smashes his good-boy image, the show is as divided, as androgynous, as Hedwig herself.
With glittery costumes by Arianne Phillips, lighting by Kevin Adams and wigs and make-up design by Mike Potter, and against Julian Crouch’s droll scenery, on one hand it’s a rock concert with an ingratiating performer who urges us to “hold onto each other.” On the other hand, it’s a call to revolution. As the lyric goes to one of its songs:
“And if you've got no other choice
you know you can follow my voice
through the dark turns and noise
of this wicked little town.”
The bombed-out setting is an inside joke. To make it valid that Hedwig, her companion, Yitzhak, and their Angry Inch band have landed on Broadway, the conceit is they’ve been allowed to give one performance on the set of the recently closed, faux ”Hurt Locker: the Musical.” Hence, lots of references to this theater, to the supposed ghost of its one-time owner David Belasco, to an ongoing Times Square concert by Hedwig’s former lover and present rival.
All this justification replaces the more authentic setting of a seedy nightclub in Greenwich Village. Yet, once you’ve dislodged the illogical from your mind, you can wallow in the sometimes sordid, often just funny tale of the victim of a botched sex-change operation (hence the remnant angry inch).
Harris as Hedwig conducts monologues filled with double entendres, engaging both physically and through verbal insults. There’s something ingratiatingly American yet nastily German about Hedwig. “I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two,” she declares, while torn herself between entertaining the audience and berating the boyfriend who stole her material.
It’s a risky role, hanging somewhere in-between nasty and sympathetic, leaning towards the latter. John Cameron Mitchell’s book and Stephen Trask’s music and lyrics are more serious than they appear. As Hedwig attempts to put her two halves together, she reaches an apotheosis with religious overtones.
Although it’s Harris’ show, under Michael Mayer’s driving direction, Lena Hall is an entrancing Yitzhak. Born in Crimea, with a name that implies a Jewish background, Yitzhak is also a separated half that Hedwig must unite.
Like the theater audience itself, which Hedwig exhorts to “lift up your hands,” this is, finally, a communal love fest, a whole package. It is, as a lyric has it, “part sun, part earth / part daughter, part son / the origin of love.”
--David A. Rosenberg
April 28, 2014