Gutsy, ballsy, and full of sass. Not only is this how we are first introduced to Hedwig in the current Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it also perfectly describes the show as a whole. Throw in a ton of empathy, a bucket load of heart, and Stephen Trask’s music and lyrics that either have you rocking out in your seat or crying a flood of tears and you can see exactly why this revival production of John Cameron Mitchell’s tragic transgender East Berlin rocker is one of Broadway’s must see shows since it premiered last year.
Taking place over the course of a one night only concert, the musical, directed by Michael Mayer, tells the tale of “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig, by the lady herself. Part musical, part rock concert, the audience journeys from her life growing up as Hansel, a “slip of a girlyboy” in Communist East Berlin to her botched sex change operation and escape to the US as the wife of an American soldier, through to her American reinvention, including her relationship with rockstar Tommy Gnosis, the cause of her sudden notoriety. Backed by her current husband Yitzhak, a former Jewish drag queen from Zagreb, and the Angry Inch Band, Hedwig attempts to set the record straight on whom exactly she is, her life and her loves.
Currently starring in a limited 12-week run as Hedwig, Darren Criss (Glee, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) makes his triumphant return to Broadway, rocking the Belasco Theatre and silencing his critics. As the youngest Hedwig to date, in the lead up to his run many feared that Criss’ performance may have had something missing that was found in the previous Hedwigs. However, this could not have been further from the truth.
The mixed format of the show is the perfect vehicle for Criss with the character playing to his many strengths, providing the audience with a no holds barred concert experience while at the same time taking us on this tragic journey of self destruction/discovery that Hedwig undergoes. It is Criss’ very youthful energy and sense of wonder, especially early on in the piece that captivates the audience and, in a way, makes her tale even more heartbreaking as we see its loss. As Hedwig tells her sorry tale over the course of 90 minutes, Criss constantly smashes through the fourth wall showing his intelligence, sass, and ability to take an audience along with him wherever he chooses to go. Criss’ Hedwig commands the stage from the minute she descends to the floor and she is simply mesmerising to watch.
Unlike a lot of mainstream theatre, the success of Hedwig relies on the relationship created between Hedwig and the audience. The energy and vibe from the audience and how open they are to play and interact with Hedwig really dictates the kind of show you will experience, with no two shows alike. Having settled into the role over the past month, Criss’ Hedwig is getting feistier, more daring, and more interactive producing an exciting, edgy performance that is both powerful to watch, yet all the more tragic. If audience participation is not your cup of tea, however, then steer clear of the first ten or so rows in the orchestra as seated there, you really are fair game for Hedwig’s antics.
From the first moment I saw Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Yitzhak on stage I knew I was going to love her. She gives Yitzhak a lovely combination of spirit, ambition, and timidity. Constantly put down and shoved out of the spotlight (both verbally and literally) by Hedwig, his ability to keep bouncing back is to be admired and pitied. Jones is fantastic in the role. With a big, powerful voice (when Hedwig allows Yitzhak to be heard) and enormous strength in his stillness, your eyes are constantly torn between Jones’ calm and Criss’ frenzy.
The chemistry between Criss and Jones is a joy to watch. Both love to goad and play with the other, recruiting the audience onto their side with whatever means at their disposal. Vocally, they sound amazing together, making me wish that we could get a cast album starring the pair, however much I love Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall in the roles.
The Angry Inch Band bring the rock and roll to the Belasco. Though silent throughout (apart from a brief interaction with musical director Skszp, played by Justin Craig), they often join in on the goading of Hedwig. Apart from through their music, they are also able to say so much through facial expressions, gestures and their body language, creating distinct characters in their own right.
In a production such as Hedwig, the hair, make up and costumes are essential elements to get right and Mike Potter (Hair and Make Up Design) and Arianne Phillips (Costume Design) have out done themselves with this production. Extravagant, lush, and vibrant, dolled out in her finest, Criss is non-existent on stage for the majority of the piece, it is just Hedwig. While Yitzhak is rather non-descript throughout the show, his final outfit is stunning and a lovely contrast to Hedwig’s.
Darren Criss is Hedwig until July 19th, with Taye Diggs taking over from July 22nd. Tickets for Hedwig and the Angry Inch can be purchased here.
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