BWW Reviews: Hyper-Gender Glam Rock Goes Family Friendly in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
With the exception of Bertolt Brecht plays and Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, there's not a subversive work of art that doesn't eventually get accepted as nostalgic family friendly fun once the rebellious youths who first embraced it become old enough to determine the cultural norms.
The latest example can be seen at the Belasco Theatre where the combination of Neil Patrick Harris, Broadway and Hedwig And The Angry Inch is luring in happy playgoers, excited to see a TV star, to enjoy some good old fashioned hyper-gender glam rock alongside aging members of the Art Star movement who remember when such performances were regulated to hole-in-the-wall LES venues.
This is not a bad thing, of course. After cutting his teeth as a Broadway replacement and featured player, Harris is now getting a chance to revel in the kind of glib musical theatre showmanship he's been executing so well as four-time host of the Tony Awards. He's perfectly cast as a self-identifying female rocker who, as young gay lad of walled-up East Berlin, underwent a sex change operation; not because he felt his true gender was female, but in order to marry his American boyfriend and live a free life in the U.S.A.
A botched procedure left the newly-named Hedwig with a gender-neutral inch of non-specific genitalia. When hubby leaves her for a man after a year of marriage, she forms a band and starts writing songs with a protégé named Tommy, who leaves her and becomes an international recording superstar with an album of songs co-written with or completely written by Hedwig.
The conceit of the show-within-the-show evening is that Hedwig has booked a performance in a small venue nearby where Tommy is opening a mega concert tour. The text by John Cameron Mitchell, who originated the starring role Off-Broadway and recreated his performance for the film, has Hedwig telling the story of her life in between an infectious collection of autobiographical songs, penned by Stephen Trask.
The exceptional score is highlighted by the deceptively catchy "Wig In a Box," about combatting the drudgery of life with continual reinvention, the lonely contemplation, "Wicked Little Town" and the descriptive rock out, "Angry Inch." Though each selection is presented as a pop song meant to stand on its own, they all contribute to revealing aspects of the on-stage character.
Center stage for nearly the entire show, Harris is a dynamo musical theatre actor playing a tortured rocker finding freedom through attention, mixing sincerity with Al Jolson showmanship as his character throws herself into the safety of the spotlight. Though the theater audience plays the role of Hedwig's audience, the star is well-prepared for those who might cross over the line of appropriateness. ("I'll do the show, bitch.")
Lena Hall becomes a beautifully empathetic presence as Hedwig's Croatian husband, Yitzhak (the character is male but traditionally played by a woman). An accomplished female impersonator, Yitzhak was once booked as Hedwig's opening act, but the crowd responded with such tumultuous applause that she refused to follow. When Yitzhak begged Hedwig to marry him so that he may live in the free world, she agreed, but only if he never performed in drag again.
During the concert, Hedwig's abusive behavior toward Yitzhak mirrors the way she was treated by men in her past, and as Hedwig makes discoveries about her own self-identity, she learns that she must allow her husband the same freedom.
As an entertainment, this revival is first rate. Director Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Everyday Rapture) is well-established as one who can expose the dramatic subtext beneath a concert musical.
It's only when you consider the awkward transition from a 1998 underground sensation to a 2014 Broadway production that Hedwig falters a bit. This is a piece that's played in the "here" and "now" and when the show premiered at the out of the way, worse for wear Jane Street Theatre it helped established the title character as on the outer fringes of popular notoriety. Mitchell's text is revised to recognize that she's now playing on Broadway, and though there are wisecracks referring to the Belasco as one of those lonely theatres on the other side of the street, it's hard to accept her as being an obscure talent only known among insiders.
And since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall figures heavily in the plot, setting the evening in the present drags out the timeline of events a bit much.
Nevertheless, Hedwig is an exceptionally fun and poignant show, and the fact that such a piece can be more easily assimilated into our popular culture than it was sixteen years ago speaks volumes on how much more of an accepting society we've become.