by Cory Conley · April 29, 2014
On my way out of the Belasco Theatre, where I'd just seen HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, I happened to bump into Stephen Trask, the show's composer. Oh, I don't know him (and, keeping my respectful distance, I said nothing), but something occurred to me upon seeing him: this is really his show.
Though book writer John Cameron Mitchell made it famous, as the star of the inaugural production and the eventual movie, the show takes its strange, magnificent energy as much from its score as from its book. And while Mitchell's performance was a triumph, this revival at the Belasco makes one thing crystal clear: that HEDWIG adds up to much, much more than the charisma of a single performer.
This was rather hard to imagine at first. For one thing, the production stars Neil Patrick Harris, the boyish and squeaky-clean sitcom star who has made a second career out of hosting Tony and Emmy Awards ceremonies. He's got plenty of stamina and charm, sure, but headlining a Broadway show as an "internationally ignored" transgender rock star with a German accent and a filthy mouth?
But Harris pulls it off, in spectacular fashion. His instinct for showmanship, along with his comic timing, has sharply improved since "Assassins," his last Broadway venture in 2004. Blazing through Mitchell's dialogue and Trask's peppy score full of hard-rocking showstoppers, Harris creates a character that is instantly likable, in command, and (you can tell) too haunted by her own demons to achieve the success she craves. She's helped along by the sensational backup band behind her (thus, "The Angry Inch"), and her long-suffering boyfriend Yitzhak.
Upon entering the theater, we are greeted by Julian Crouch's (intentionally) preposterous set, which features a city in the midst of an explosion. It's supposed to be the backdrop for "Hurt Locker: The Musical," which (according to the show's clever setup) closed before the end of its first performance. Hedwig finagled her way into a one-night-only Broadway engagement after the demise of "Hurt Locker," which we're here to witness. The show is part concert, part memoir, and part exorcism (of a sort), which touches on Hedwig's youthful escape across the Berlin Wall from East Germany, and her subsequent tortured life in the United States.
The songs do a lot of the work. (Highlights include "Wig in a Box," "The Origin of Love," and "Sugar Daddy.") Harris is as comfortable with soft, intimate ballads as he is when it gets fast and loud (as it does, frequently.) He's also able to sell the sort of X-rated, groan-worthy punchlines that are more typical of a drag show. His presence is both soothing and somehow unnerving: although we like this Hedwig, we can never be sure where she's headed next.
But I suppose she isn't, either. HEDWIG is ultimately a show about accepting even the strange, disappointing things that happen in your life. I was largely unfamiliar with the show before seeing it at the Belasco, but my theatergoing companion told me that listening to the CD in college was instrumental in his process of coming out as gay. That's probably a common story. HEDWIG offers no easy answers or bland affirmations, but it does remind you that no matter how bad things get, there's nothing that will heal you so much as putting on a good show.