Neil Patrick Harris is the slickest ‘Hedwig’ you’ll ever see

05/29/2014 2:16 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is something we rarely encounter: a rock musical worthy of the name.

Before I had a chance to see this crazed, wildly creative show, I heard the 1999 off-Broadway cast recording and was instantly mesmerized. It was one of those CDs you immerse yourself in because you have no other choice.

The 11 songs (plus one reprise) by Stephen Trask were and remain seductive and haunting. The propulsive score stimulates the imagination to the point that you want to grab a guitar and play along.

Trask’s score is a mashup of subgenres that incorporates elements of glam rock, punk and a mixed bag of other influences, almost as if Trask helped himself to a musical smorgasbord as he pieced together the show.

But he fashions the musical threads beautifully. Even as he pushes boundaries, he keeps it all within classic rock-band format: guitars, keyboards, bass, drums, lead vocals and backup harmonies.

The Tony-nominated Broadway production, anchored by Neal Patrick Harris in the title role, is an impeccable realization of the music and a clever rewrite of the book by John Cameron Mitchell (the original Hedwig).

“Hedwig” is, among other things, an elaborate joke. Developed by Mitchell and Trask in club performances in the 1990s, the show tells the story of an obscure rock singer who, as a young East Berliner named Hansel (the future Hedwig), meets and falls in love with an American soldier.

In order to be legally married, and for Hansel to fulfill the role of “wife,” he undergoes a sex-change operation. But the surgery is botched, leaving Hedwig in a state of indeterminate gender.

The couple move to Junction City, Kan., where Hansel meets the true love of his/her life, Tommy Gnossis, a young Christian and future rock star. The two write some songs together, but eventually Tommy leaves and becomes a wildly popular musician, while Hedwig is left to perform in obscurity in small clubs with her backup singer and “husband,” Yitzhak (Lena Hall).

The story is told in monologues and songs in an uninterrupted 90 minutes in which Hedwig leaves the stage, briefly, only once.

Director Michael Mayer, the guy who staged “Everyday Rapture” and “American Idiot,” knows all about integrating a rock sensibility with legitimate theater. His direction is precise and seamless.

This show is a hit, and rightly so, but staging it on Broadway exacerbates the material’s logical inconsistencies. Mitchell rewrote the early part of the book in an effort to explain why Hedwig is performing in the Belasco Theatre rather than the gritty, out-of-the-way clubs that were integral to the original conceit.

“Hedwig,” it’s safe to say, has never been staged with such impressive production values. The lighting (Kevin Adams), set (Julian Crouch) and costumes (Arianne Phillips) represent the highest level of design work. So do the wigs and makeup by Mike Potter and some phenomenal projections by Benjamin Pearcy.

But Harris is such a poised performer, one who glistens with professionalism at every moment, that it’s virtually impossible to accept him as a marginal club singer. After a certain point, however, these concerns go out the window. The way to enjoy this show is to simply surrender to it.

Harris is a master of the ad-lib, and it’s impossible to say which of his lines were scripted by Mitchell and which were spur-of-the-moment improvisations. The hooting and guffawing Saturday night audience I saw the show with lapped up all the acerbic asides and saturated irony.

But just as the character of Hedwig changes before our eyes, the show’s tone shifts from glib sarcasm into something darker and more reflective. After the midway point, the theatergoers had fewer opportunities to impose themselves on the performance. Nothing like serious intent to quiet an obnoxious crowd.

The show’s theme, which is never satisfactorily articulated, is based on the premise that each of us is unfinished. We have only half a soul, half an identity. The other half has been torn from us and to be whole we must find it.

Thus, Hedwig, caught between male and female genders, is on a quest. So is Yitzhak, who has similar gender-confusion issues. Their journeys reach a seemingly happy conclusion in the show’s final minutes, but it has never made much sense to me. If you’re looking for a philosophically coherent point to it all, you’ll be better off if you just let the music transport you.

Muddled storytelling aside, nobody can deny the show’s surprising poignancy. Hedwig is the permanent outsider, the eternal refugee, the lost soul who can never be understood. Most people dwelling in the real world should know how that feels.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Bob on Broadway

The Star’s theater critic, Robert Trussell, traveled to New York recently to watch and review several Tony-nominated plays and musicals. See his reviews of “Act One,” “Violet,” “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” “All the Way” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” on KansasCity.com. The Tony Awards are June 8 and will be broadcast on CBS.

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