Monday, May 19, 2014

The Origin of a Superstar

Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Add "legs" to the list of things NPH does better than you.

When it was announced that perpetual Tony host and all-around theatrical ambassador Neil Patrick Harris would make his long-awaited return to Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was skeptical.  While I had never seen the show, I knew just enough about this cult musical with Off-Broadway origins to question how well Harris - known for his polished performances and generally genial disposition - would be able to carry a grungy show about a transgendered rocker.  I'm happy to report that any doubts I had were entirely misplaced, as it is clear from the second Harris struts onto the Belasco Theatre's stage that the show (and the audience) are in excellent hands.  The Emmy-winning actor just gets it, and Harris absolutely owns the evening for the duration of its 100 minutes.

The musical, with a rock score by Stephen Trask and a book by original star John Cameron Mitchell, centers on the "internationally ignored song stylist" Hedwig, a refugee from Cold War-era East Berlin who was the recipient of a botched sex change operation.  A former collaborator and lover of the much more successful Tommy Gnossis, Hedwig and her band the Angry Inch follow Gnossis around the world as she attempts to win back the affection of the man she is convinced is her soulmate.  The entire evening occurs in real time during one of Hedwig's concerts, while Tommy plays a much bigger, flashier engagement down the block in the heart of Times Square.

Mitchell's book deals with the universal feelings of longing for acceptance and love, and the show also touches upon the host of identity issues brought up by Hedwig's gender reassignment.  Despite premiering almost two decades ago, the show remains groundbreaking in its portrayal of the transgendered Hedwig, because the show steadfastly chooses to treat her gender as a big deal.  Hedwig is who she is, and although her sex is a part of her she is not solely defined by it, which makes the show's central themes relatable to everyone whether you're gay, straight, transgendered, or anywhere inbetween.  The score also contains a surprising amount of depth and musical variety, while remaining steadfastly in the rock idiom and eschewing the traditional musical theatre sound.  The show offers a lot to think about without feeling preachy or pedantic, with a great deal of heart packed into its intermissionless runtime.

The real joy of Mitchell's book is that it provides a framework around which the lead actor can fashion their own unique take on the material.  The sensational Neil Patrick Harris ceases this opportunity and runs with it, taking full advantage of the show's loose structure to improvise when the inspiration strikes him.  In between songs, Harris has ample opportunity to toy with the audience using the razor-sharp wit and superb comic timing he's demonstrated time and again hosting various award shows.  In fact, there are times when Harris' wit is so fast paced it takes the audience a few seconds to catch up to him, but the master showman Harris knows just how long to wait for a joke to process before moving on (while playfully judging you all the while).  He's not above poking fun at the audience, but also knows just how to pitch the joke so it feels like good-natured ribbing rather than a malicious takedown.

Harris' mastery over both the stage and the audience is intoxicating while at the same time a decidedly different energy than the persona he's cultivated over the years.  Harris embodies Hedwig, with all of her hopes, dreams, and carefully masked insecurities.  Harris' creation is so fully realized that even when the actor goes off script everything feels authentic to the character and the situation.  But there is also a tenderness to his Hedwig, a sullen vulnerability that makes her someone you can root for throughout the course of the show.  Hedwig may be a rock concert with Harris as its giddy ringmaster, but the it is this added depth that makes the performance truly mesmerizing.

Providing a necessary and unexpectedly moving counterbalance to Harris' flash and spectacle is Lena Hall's understated Yitzhak, Hedwig's current husband.  Although Yitzhak spends most of the show running tech support and providing Hedwig whatever she might require (water, towels, background vocals), Hall manages to communicate volumes about her largely silent character's inner life by the way in which she does all these things.  For most of the show the interaction between Hall and Harris is limited, but when they do share a moment the connection speaks volumes.  Hall does an excellent job of making up for the lack of information provided about her small but pivotal role in the script, and without her assured performance the show's finale wouldn't have the momentum to provide the emotional release it currently does.

Director Michael Mayer and his creative team have done an excellent job of scaling up this intimate musical (usually performed in small spaces or even underground clubs) for the Great White Way.  Taking his cue from Harris' electrifying performance, Mayer has turned the evening into a full-blown rock concert, cranking the volume up to 11 and giving the performance all sorts of big-budget bells and whistles.  Julian Crouch's set (which as Hedwig helpfully explains is leftover from the opening/closing night performance of The Hurt Locker: The Musical) constantly reveals new facets and hidden surprises, as well as providing a veritable jungle gym for Harris and his enormous platform heels to climb all over.  Arianne Phillips' costumes are just as tongue-in-cheek and fabulous as you could hope for, and although Hedwig barely leaves the stage Phillips' layered creations allow the star to cycle through several equally outrageous looks.  And Kevin Adams lighting and Tim O'Heir's sound design is 100% rock n' roll, completing the Belasco's transformation from Broadway theatre into concert venue.

Thanks to the presence of its famous headliner, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has already become one of the must-see events of the spring season.  Thankfully, Neil Patrick Harris exceeds expectations in the central role with a star turn that cements the actor's status as a theatrical heavy hitter, clearly giving 110% in a performance that is by turns hilarious, moving, and most importantly real.  Director Michael Mayer has carefully crafted his staging around Harris' talents without losing focus of the story they're trying to tell, with a physical production worthy of both Broadway and the Broadway-level ticket prices the show currently commands.  Seats may be hard to come by, but Harris ensures that searching them out is worth the effort, and proves to be the perfect actor to introduce this gem of a show to wider audience.  Hedwig is not to be missed.

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