By Michall Jeffers
Patrick Harris as Hedwig (Joan Marcus)
There’s no doubt about it; Neil Patrick Harris is a rock star. His
fans are out in force for his stellar turn as Hedwig, a transplanted “girly
boy” from East Berlin who’s had a tough life, including a botched sex change
operation. The angry inch of the title refers not only to his ragtag backup
band, but also to what’s left of his penis. “It’s what I have to work with,” he
explains to a shocked lover. Tommy Gnosis, the young American man who flees
when he discovers Hedwig’s deformity, is very much at the center of the story.
NPH, as he’s known to his following, is dressed in a glitter trash outfit,
complete with spangled denim, yellow go-go boots, and fishnet tights. Hedwig
sports wigs that the queen of excess, Dolly Parton, would consider in bad
taste. “Yankee Go Home” is flashed on the cutoff shorts . Harris sings,
dances, and charms the audience even as Hedwig rants throughout the show about
her difficult past and her lost love.
As soon a Hedwig is parachuted onto a detritus strewn stage, it’s
obvious that this is no ordinary night at the theater. The Julian Crouch set
is, to say the least, unique. Battered debris is suspended from the ceiling,
and on the stage sits a broken down old car. It’s obvious that chaos has ensued
here. The explanation given is that the surroundings are left over from a
disastrous one night debacle based on the movie “The Hurt Locker,” which didn’t
survive even one performance. The music is ear shatteringly loud; be warned
that this never abates, and screaming fans boost the ear bleeding decibel rate
This is not a production for those of delicate sensibilities.
Hedwig gives the audience the finger, graphically describes her sexual
escapades (including the one that persuaded a Shubert bigwig to give her the
theater for her one night performance), and at one point, spits on those in the
first few rows. The humor is blackly sardonic; Hedwig describes her dreadful
mother in non-glowing terms, and informs us she “taught sculpture to limbless
She recounts the legend of the theater; supposedly, the noted
impresario David Belasco haunts it, and if he’s present, he’ll be in his
favorite chair. Hedwig spotlights the gentleman sitting in that seat during the
show, looking for assurances that the ghost has made an appearance. She banters
with the audience in what seems spontaneous, but is actually scripted,
dialogue. There are lots of in jokes about show folk and singers; when Hedwig
address the main floor with “Hello, New York,” and the balcony with “Hello, New
Jersey,” everyone laughs.
with Lena Hall
As the evening progresses, there are some rather stunning costume
changes; every outfit by Arianne Phillips makes an indelible impression, none
more so than the final changes by Harris and the long suffering Yitzhak (Lena
Hall), who is bandmate, partner, and adoring assistant. The gallery of wigs and
the make-up design by Mike Potter couldn’t be more dazzling. Harris makes a
stunning woman, and he has plenty of help achieving the tough-yet-vulnerable
façade that Hedwig affects. Indeed, it’s pointed out that the leading lady’s
name is, quite appropriately, “head wig.”
The men in Hedwig’s lives have all done her wrong. Her surgery was
performed at the request of Luther, a black G.I. who gave her candy in more
ways than one. Tommy Gnosis, army brat, took not only the name Hedwig bestowed
upon him, but also stole her music and creative ideas. Not so coincidentally,
he’s performing his wildly popular act next door; Hedwig opens the door to
hear Tommy’s infinitely self-involved monologue, and to shout back at him. The
fact that the chanteuse was stuck in Kansas as a down-and-out divorcee while
Tommy became a huge success has fueled both her fury and her longing.
The book by the original Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell, is thin to
say the least. Mitchell appeared in the title role both onstage, in a much
smaller, cheaper venue, and also in the less than successful movie adaptation.
Harris deserves the much more expensive, glammed up venue. He not only looks
terrific, but as he sweats (literally) through the intricate onstage moves, his
body is fluid and his energy is impressive. The Stephen Trask music and lyrics
are no great shakes, but Harris has a splendid voice, and he knows how to sell
a song. It’s interesting to note that while Harris adopts a German accent, he
talks and sings in his male voice, not in falsetto. He’s both a woman and yet,
still a man.
The theme of reunification runs throughout the play. Hedwig yearns
for her missing other half; in Kansas, she watches on TV as the Berlin Wall
comes down at last. An enigmatic ending seems to back up this leitmotiv, but
much is left to the interpretation of the onlooker.
This show definitely has the potential to become another Rocky
Horror Picture Show to would be cultists. Word has it that the complete
Neil Patrick Harris run is already sold out. But what will happen after the
final performance on August 17th ? Will it have a continued life in
the theater, or once again fade into obscurity? The real test for Hedwig
and the Angry Inch will come when the overwhelmingly charismatic
current star is no longer playing the part, and someone else has to wear the platinum
wigs. It remains to be seen whether or not this musical has legs, namely those
in fishnet tights.
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th St., Manhattan;
212-239-6200; telecharge.com; 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Through August 17th.