When I was a kid watching cartoon on TV in New Jersey, I saw ads for Broadway shows: "Annie," "Peter Pan," "Barnum," "Evita" — fascinating, frustrating teasers that left plot lines mysterious and chords unresolved. I remember quizzing my parents about Argentina and why it should or shouldn't cry for Eva Peron. I can only imagine the questions that suburban parents have been fielding since "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" premiered on Broadway in 2014. Sex-change operations can be botched?
The Tony-winning story of Hedwig, a gender-fluid punk rocker who sacrificed part of her body to escape East Berlin before reunification, has arrived at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre on its national tour, with Darren Criss of "Glee" fame in the title role. On its face, "Hedwig" seems about as far from "Annie" as a musical can get: abrasively loud, explicitly sexual, hysterically jaded about the possibilities of human connection. One of its songs, "Angry Inch," describes the aforementioned botched operation with an anatomic specificity that would not seem out of place in a medical textbook.
But on a deeper level — beyond the wigs — Annie and Hedwig are kindred spirits, plucky optimists so dedicated to their fantasies that they bend the world into new shapes.
Hedwig is one of those magical roles that somehow transcend the individual. People don't so much play the part as get possessed by it. It's conceivable that an actor (or actress) could perform Hedwig badly, but think of all who have risen magnificently to the challenge. John Cameron Mitchell, who created the character and wrote the book for the musical (Stephen Trask composed the glam-rock, Bowie-influenced score), played Hedwig off-Broadway for years, creating a cult following of Hed-heads. When the show reached Broadway, Neil Patrick Harris took over.
Criss was one of Harris' replacements, and here in Hollywood he is inexpressibly, addictively wonderful. However skeptical you may initially feel about his Hedwig's startling hairstyle, German accent, screeching vocals, insinuating puns, muscular thighs and panther-like leaps, by the end of the evening you will feel devastated to part from him.
The musical's plot sounds complicated and confusing in recaps, but on-stage it's conveyed with a miraculous economy. Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch, have come to perform at the Pantages for the evening (the script is retooled for each venue) following the abrupt closure of a fictional production called "Hurt Locker: The Musical." (Don't forget to check under your seat for this show's delicious parody Playbill.) The set is a vivid disaster scene: a car smashed into a wall, violent splashes of red scenery that get pulled away throughout the evening to expose bare stage walls.
Hedwig's performance is a musical autobiography, and through anecdote and song, her life story is grippingly revealed. She was recently involved in a tabloid scandal with the famous rock star Tommy Gnosis. She admits to being the mysterious blond who distracted him while he was driving, causing him to smash into a school bus. The resulting notoriety has resuscitated Tommy's career, but Hedwig languishes as an "internationally ignored song stylist." Tommy also is in town tonight, performing at the Hollywood Bowl, and when Hedwig opens the backstage door, she can hear him talking to the roaring crowd — never, to her wrath, acknowledging her critical songwriting role in his success.
Throughout her performance, Hedwig behaves despotically to her bandmates, Eastern Europeans with striking hairdos, keeping them in line by threatening them with deportation and, in one case, making fun of his unpronounceable name — "the sound of crumbs swept off the table." She introduces a lanky, androgynous fellow with sideburns as her husband, Yitzhak, played by Lena Hall, who won a Tony for the role. Yitzhak busies himself with the equipment, sings backup when permitted and takes care of Hedwig with a remarkable, soulful tenderness even as she abuses him. He also craves the spotlight and has the talent to occupy it, but Hedwig is committed to keeping him in her shadow.
So there's a lot going on, plot-wise, but Hedwig manages to tell us everything we need to know about the situation while changing wigs and outfits, aggressively kissing audience members, and musing aloud in a quirky and philosophical vein. It's an irresistible mixture of profound thoughts, melancholy confessions and darkly, startlingly funny one-liners. "I lost an uncle at Auschwitz," she says at one point. "Granted he fell out of a guard tower." She pauses for a pregnant moment. "Too soon?"
Under the direction of Michael Mayer, Criss has impeccable timing and such vivid and detailed expressions and gestures that it's a struggle to look away from him, even for a moment. The gorgeous screen projections (Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions), which enclose him in a kind of visual aquarium during the lovely number "The Origin of Love," look like his thoughts come to life.
I have to admit that I wasn't quite sure what happened toward the end of the show, when Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis appeared to merge into one person. My companions suggested afterward that I was overthinking it and ought to see it as an "apotheosis" or a "passing of the torch" or a metaphor for Hedwig's "acceptance" of her own identity. Whatever was going on, I loved it. I never would have imagined, as that kid in New Jersey, I'd someday regard a show about a botched sex-change operation as a great American musical.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 27
Tickets: $35 and up (subject to change)
Information: (800) 982-2787, www.HollywoodPantages.com/Hedwig or www.Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
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