It’s obvious from the first moments of the new Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that star Neil Patrick Harris is doing something special. And it’s not just trying on a new role.
He is lowered to the stage in a jumpsuit and ferociously feathered blond wig and immediately begins the show’s first rock-punk song, getting down on all fours, grinding into the microphone stand or licking the guitarist’s strings.
The crowd inside of the Belasco Theatre, where the show opened April 21, loses its mind, and why not? “Thank you! Thank you, you’re so sweet,” Harris says. “I do love a warm hand on my entrance.”
Before our eyes, Harris is opening another chapter in his exceptional show business career with this 90-minute show and he simply crushes it, holding nothing back, softening no edges, making no nice.
The bravura performance has earned Harris a Tony nomination. The show received a total of eight.
Doogie Howser is long gone; the macho, tie-wearing Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother has left the building. That guy in The Smurfs film franchise is nowhere to be found, especially not strutting around in a pair of gold stilettos.
Harris plays Hedwig, a transgender East German performer who explains her tortured path from Berlin to a mobile home in Kansas to New York. Along the way, she has lost a piece of her manhood (the remainder is the rest of the show’s title.)
The show has a renovated book by John Cameron Mitchell — who also played the first Hedwig — and songs by Stephen Trask that straddle the line between rock ‘n’ roll and traditional musical theater. A cult off-Broadway hit in 1998, Hedwig led to a 2001 feature film and has seemingly been waiting for Harris ever since.
Director Michael Mayer has been twice blessed. He has an undervalued score — some of the 10 songs here like “Wicked Little Town,” “Origin of Love” and “Wig in a Box” deserve to be on iPods everywhere — and a stunning leading man who is willing to eat cigarettes and lick the stage (“Tastes like Kathy Griffin,” he comments after putting tongue to wood).
Mayer harnesses both beautifully, allowing Harris in a jean miniskirt to explore his natural exuberance but keeping the show about Hedwig, a feisty piece of show business flotsam or, as she admits, an “internationally ignored song stylist.” Harris sings with real feeling, whether it’s a torch song on a stool while dressed in a little cocktail dress or rocking out a head-banging tune by attacking the scenery.
Mitchell may not be Hedwig anymore, but he has given Harris new dialogue perfectly suited to the new star. There are digs at the ultra-hip Jane Hotel in New York, John Mayer and dating site ChristianMingle, as well as a new recurring joke about Broadway itself: Hedwig makes fun of the fictional Hurt Locker: the Musical, which “opened last night and closed at intermission.” (Not to worry, old jokes like the fragrance “Atrocity By Hedwig” are still there.)
Other updates include some great, trippy projections by Benjamin Pearcy and a set by Julian Crouch that features a rusting car, front and center onstage, plus a fabulous grid of wig mannequins.
The five-piece rock band is headed by Lena Hall, a Broadway veteran who also, appropriately, leads the band The Deafening. In drag most of the night, Hall shows musical versatility and comic chops.
But it will come as no surprise that while Hall has an understudy, Harris does not. And that’s perfectly right: Rarely does a role fit a performer so well. Harris is funny, twisted, poignant, outrageous, bizarre, silly and very, very human.