Stepping into the spotlight of the gargantuan Broadway cabaret show known as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a magnetic Darren Criss leaves far behind the milquetoasty character that made him famous on TV’s horrendously Auto-Tuned Glee.
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s glam-rock musical won four Tony Awards upon its opening last year: Best Actor in a Musical for Neil Patrick Harris, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lena Hall, Best Lighting Design of a Musical, and Best Revival of a Musical. It’s a revival of an Off-Broadway show, though – Hedwig had never graced the Broadway stage before Harris’s much publicized and much praised debut in the role.
Since Harris left, several Hedwigs have come and gone, including Mitchell himself, who created the role of the bewigged, bigger-than-life, botched-sex-change victim searching for his torn-away metaphorical other half in the 1998 Off-Broadway production.
I’m sure they were all good. All I can say is, Criss’s towering performance is a revelation. And plenty of Gleeks turned out to see him the night I attended, jumping and whooping without knowing the lyrics to the songs (which is how I deduced they came via Glee and not Hedwig). This wallop of a show has the power to convert TV fans to theaterhounds if anything does.
Criss gets strong support from a twistedly charismatic Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange) as Yitzhak, four fine onstage rock musicians, bang-up glam costumes (by Arianne Phillips), and those titanic wigs (by Mike Potter) called out in the song “Wig in a Box.” Kevin Adams’ lighting and the artfully childlike animations add atmosphere and spectacle. But all would be for nought without an intensely charismatic Hedwig, and Criss fits the bill and more as the self-obsessed, spiteful, and gleefully punning antihero who proves herself heroic after all in soldiering on through disappointment after disappointment.
The smashing (and smashed-up) set reflects the conceit of a fake Hurt Locker musical that supposedly opened and closed in one day, leaving its set for Hedwig’s act. While funny, this wasn’t absolutely necessary. The presence of a more down-and-out than up-and-coming Hedwig on a Broadway stage and the modern-day references (“ChristianMingle.com, or as we called it back then, church”) don’t need a contrived explanation. Unlike the movie version, the stage show succeeds in coming off as a high-concept (and very loud) cabaret act, performed, like many such shows, by a single character who alternates songs with the story of a life. It’s a show containing a narrative, not a narrative presented in the form of a show. The gorgeously decorated but intimate Belasco Theater is the perfect venue. My disbelief was easily suspended.
That is, until the beat-up car at center stage was pulled up and away on ropes. But by that time the show had worked its musical and emotional magic. When, near the end, a rising column lifts Hedwig high above the stage to sing a reprise of “Wicked Little Town,” at last bereft of costumes and wigs and no longer looking like a woman at all, her domination is as complete as the undoing of her image.
Only the loss of some lyrics amid the loud rock music made my enjoyment incomplete. Trask’s lyrics are singularly evocative and it’s a shame to miss any of them. Fortunately this happens only in parts of a few numbers.
Given fresh life by a performer who has the voice, the moves, the charisma, and the laser-like focus the role demands, the tragedy and triumph of this now iconic character add up to a magnificent treat for Hedwigians, Gleeks, and glam-rock lovers alike, as well as theatergoers of any stripe as long as they’re tolerant of high volume and some sexual content.
Darren Criss continues in Hedwig and the Angry Inch until July 19. Taye Diggs takes over July 22.