Neil Patrick Harris, who appeared on Broadway in Proof, Cabaret and Assassins before being scooped up by How I Met Your Mother for nine years, still managed to maintain a regular presence in the theater by hosting the Tony Awards no less than four times. Now that the long-running CBS sitcom has finally ended, not only is Harris back onstage, he is tackling one of the most outsized, flamboyant and intense musical theater roles ever created in the first Broadway staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s acclaimed hard rock musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1998 with Mitchell playing Hedwig. It was then made into a 2001 film starring and directed by Mitchell. The musical, structured as a concert, allows Hedwig, a transgender glam rock diva, to narrate her life story in between sophisticated but catchy songs. She is joined by her band (The Angry Inch) and new Eastern European husband Yitzhak (the terrific Lena Hall), a former cross-dresser himself.
Hedwig (originally Hansel) grew up in East Germany and eventually underwent a botched sex change operation at the behest of her ex-husband. Alone in the United States, Hedwig starts writing songs with Tommy, a teenage boy who eventually deserts her and becomes a major music star by using their songs, never acknowledging Hedwig’s co-authorship. At present, Hedwig is shadowing Tommy’s concert tour.
Whereas the original production was set around a dingy ballroom and used little scenery, the Broadway revival, directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), acknowledges that it is taking place in a Broadway theater in the present day. The elaborate set is supposedly left over from the recently shuttered Hurt Locker: The Musical. (Look under your seats and you may find a Hurt Locker: The Musical playbill, which apparently had a book by Tony Kushner and starred Taye Diggs and Michael Cerveris.)
While no one can doubt Harris’ theatrical showmanship, more than adequate voice and expert handling of the comedy aspects, his Hedwig has yet to come together as a fully developed character with a sense of vulnerability behind all the signs of ferocity and flamboyance. But given the role’s complexity and grueling physical demands, that’s more than understandable. Chances are that his performance will improve as the run continues.
The new setting affects the show’s credibility to a great extent. Would a strange, struggling performer really be invited to perform on a Broadway stage? The set, which contains a car in mid-explosion and was meant to look ridiculous, distracts from the central narrative. And since Hedwig’s past is rooted in East Berlin before the wall came down, updating the musical to the present day should make Hedwig considerably older than she appears to be. But as it is, this remains a wild and enjoyable production of one of the most exciting and inventive rock musicals of all time.