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A CurtainUp Review
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
By Elyse Sommer
Forget about Barney Stinson of How I Met your Mother. This is Harris in transgendered splendor and glistening eye make-up. It's also an amazingly athletic Harris who's in fine voice and very funny. The impromptu comic shtick that's always been part of this show, now includes some some audacious interaction with the audience, especially people in the front row or in the aisle seat at the left of the center section. But he is also incredibly poignant. Whatever he's doing — verbal or physical comic business or belting out one of the ten musical numbers — Harris has the audience eating it all up. There isn't a funny bit that doesn't have the theater rocked by resounding laughter. No matter what the tone, every song ends with thunderous applause.
Unlike my colleague Les Gutman and many others who thought Hedwig and the Angry Inch was the best and most original musical of 1998, I wasn't quite that smitten when I saw it down on Jane Street. But this time around, I fell under Hedwig's spell big time. Not just the imaginative plot but the Steven Trasks varied rock score and the story telling wit of his lyrics. I especially liked that touch of the Beatles in "Wig in the Box."
The saga of the "ignored" German transvestite rock star Hedwig's search for love and identity has not been sweetened or made prettier. The transformation of East Berlin born Hansel into Hedwig is still an at once painful and funny one. Hansel's exit visa to America comes at the high price of that "angry inch" operation to transform Hansel into Gretel, or rather Hedwig. The trip from Germany to New York, by way of a trailer park in Kansas, is still scattered with more misfortunes than the bread crumbs the Grimm Brothers' Hansel and his sister leave on the road as a means of being rescued if they run into trouble.
Neil Patrick Harris is splendidly supported by the excellent band (Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz) and the terrific Lena Hall. Hall is the mannishly dressed drag queen Yitzhak, Hedwig's astoundingly busy "husband and Man Friday through Thursday." (Hold onto your seat belts for Yitzhak's finally self-actualizing up and down the aisle finale).
While Harris is undoubtedly the main reason this downtown show now succeeds uptown, much credit belongs to Michael Mayer and his designers for the way they've "Broadway-ized it without burying its soulful plot. Scenic designer Julian Crouch has created a spectacular environment, that's enlivened and given extra pizazz by Benjamin Pearcy's projections. It's glitzy as can be,but it works.
Tim O'Heir seems to have slightly lowered the sound , but it's still propulsive and loud enough for those with sensitive ears to consider bringing along ear plugs. Kevin Adams, who also lit the downtown production, has ratcheted up the lighting, the one make-it-bigger element I could have done without. But wig and make-up Mike Potter, another designer who was on board during the Jane Street run has once again outdone himself here. Those wigs are stars in their own right, especially in that wonderful "Wig In a Box" number.
Every one of the song achieves what Les Gutman felt was Stephen Trask's most remarkable feat: relating the feelings they are intended to express. Thus the gritty "Tear Me Down" segues into the touching "The Origin of Love." The story and mood swing shifts continue with the catchy and stunningly illustrated "Sugar Daddy" ("I'll Be Your Venus On A Chocolate Clam Shell/ rising On A Sea Of Marshmallow Foam/and If You Got Some Sugar For Me/sugar Daddy, Bring It Home/it's Our Tradition To Control,/like Erich Honecker And Helmut Kohl"). The intense pain and anger of the title song is the music narrative's emotional highlight.
The historic Jane Street hotel was an important element of that production's ambience. And so, true to the ad hoc nature of the text, the current dialogue includes an amusing introductory nod to Hedwig's now doing her concert at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. That nod features tributes to stellar plays recently seen on this stage. It concludes with a sly reference to a musical that never opened named The Hurt Locker that supposedly left its scenery behind to be recycled for Hedwig's one night concert there.
This isn't a 4-ticket selling family musical like Aladin, but it's the savviest transfer of a show not readily right for conventional audience I've seen on the Great White Way this season. Fans of the downtown show may miss the grungier aura and console themselves by watching John Cameron Mitchell in their copy of the film. But Harris's even greater fan base will see to it that every seat in the Belasco continues to be filled.