Thanks to a hit Broadway revival and superb movie adaptation, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 Off-Broadway cult favorite “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has retained its standing in popular culture. Better yet, it’s reaching a new audience.
In a bleaker universe, “Hedwig” – the famed tale of an East German man whose sex-change operation is botched – would have faded away by now, the name known to younger folks today only as the name of Harry Potter’s owl. Instead, this raucous and emotionally enveloping musical is all gussied up in a big, bruising and often electric national tour. The production has some flaws because of its star player but still has a lot of sizzle.
Through Oct. 30, audiences at the Golden Gate Theatre can see Darren Criss (of “Glee” fame) in the title role and Lena Hall as Yitzhak, her Tony Award-winning role from the Broadway production. (In a bit of daring, you can also see Hall at selected performances try her hand at the Hedwig role, yet another twist on the sexual ambiguity of the character and the first time an actor has played both roles in the same production.)
There’s much I like about the show, from the combustible lighting design (by Kevin Adams) to Hall’s intense, bleak-yet-inspiring take on Yitzhak, a beleaguered drag queen who serves as Hedwig’s ill-treated back-up singer and husband. The songs are as good as ever (“Wig in a Box” and “Wicked Little Town” are sublime), the back-up band is first-rate (the Angry Inch of the title, a nod to Hedwig’s mangled anatomy after the sex change), the costumes and wigs sumptuous and the overall creative aesthetic of the production a nice balance between urban grit and throbbing rock fantasy.
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But Criss only turns in half of a great performance. He misses something elemental in the equation that makes Hedwig such a memorable, iconic character.
What does he get right? The bitchy anger. In many ways, “Hedwig” is a flashback to vaudevillian times. We cede our 90 or so minutes of attention to a character steeped in bitterness, at least at first. As a musician, Hedwig – who marries an American soldier and winds up in her version of Middle America hell – is scraping by with gigs in rotten venues. Her music career is going nowhere and her best songs have been pilfered by a former lover playing concerts to crowds in large stadiums.
How does Hedwig cope? By dishing out a stream of cynical (and very funny) wisecracks and riffing on the numerous ways that life has beaten her up. Criss excels at this, working in amusing insider references (barbs at the venerable Bob Niederlander, one of the owners of the theater) and local quips (a joke about a gender-neutral bathroom on an idling Google bus). Even Criss’ taut physique contributes to his demeanor. His tight, muscular body seems to cut through the world of the play, sleek and sharp, like an acerbic shark.
But there’s more to Hedwig’s character than camp and snark. Underneath her hard shell is compassion and hurt. Criss made all the right exterior moves called for in the script, slowly stripping down from Hedwig’s extravagant drag-queen splendor to bare skin. That inner core of the character, however, remained elusive to me.
Stephen Trask’s music in “Hedwig” is superb, but his lyrics are even better. “Ain't much of a difference / Between a bridge and a wall,” Hedwig sings. The show resonates with its theme of dichotomies and the challenges of bridging two halves: male and female, East and West, fame and insignificance. Hedwig herself is likewise divided between anger and joy. Cruelty and compassion.
That’s why the callous way Hedwig treats Yitzhak in the musical’s earlier scenes makes sense. There is venom there, yes, but there also should be tenderness. Without it, something is missing. Otherwise the transformation of both characters falls flat.
Criss is impressive when it comes to many things in this show, from his vocals and physicality to his sheer star power. But he can’t quite cross the bridge to Hedwig’s vulnerabilities. In that way, this “Hedwig” isn’t completely whole.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
- Through Oct. 30
- Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco