REVIEW: Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Belasco Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Neil Patrick Harris is Hedwig. Photo: Joan Marcus
Neil Patrick Harris is Hedwig. Photo: Joan Marcus

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Belasco Theatre
19 April 2014
5 Stars

Tonight, I sat behind a father who had brought his teenage boy to the theatre. For almost the entire performance, Dad sat with his head in his hands, occasionally shaking his head in stunned surprise. The lad sat open mouthed, gasping in astonishment at what was playing out in front of him. Yet…neither of them moved or tried to leave early. Each stayed to the very end.

The occasion was a performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring Neil Patrick Harris, now in previews at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Presumably Dad booked thinking it would be a nice show featuring that funny guy from How I Met a Your Mother. Perhaps he will try researching productions in the future, so some good will come of his horror.

For Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about as far removed from the smooth glossy situation comedy that is How I Met Your Mother as one is likely ever to find.

Set to uber-charged rock music, the production tells the tale of Hedwig, who has a botched sex change operation in order to leave East Berlin behind, and who then is deserted by the man she had the sex change for. The botched operation leaves Hedwig with “an angry inch” as his new vagina closed up unexpectedly. Befriending a lonely teenager, Tommy Speck, Hedwig helps turn him into a rock star and writes songs with him. Speck also deserts Hedwig, forcing her to eke out existence in Speck’s shadow.

In this performance Harris must surely silence those critics who still think of him as the geeky upstart from Doogie Howser MD, the 1989 television series which launched Harris’ career.

He is nothing short of sensational as Hedwig.

In much the same way that, no doubt, Angela Lansbury confounded the expectations and fears of those who thought Mama Rose was a “Merman” role, so here does Harris confound those who thought him too light-weight, too glossy, too girly, too insubstantial to tackle the spiky, fiery, sexually explicit, tragic man-girl character that is Hedwig.

It turns out that he makes a perfect Hedwig.

He has obviously spent much time honing his body, sculpting it to perfection. There is not a sliver of fat anywhere on his tight, taut, washboard everything. He looks like an Olympic athlete and a feral cannibal at the same time, especially at the finale when he is wearing nothing but leather briefs as Tommy. He is like a sexual lighthouse – spreading his charismatic sexual and sensual energy deep into the darkest sections of the auditorium.

Word must have got out, because several young good looking men were primed in the front row – and one of them got to snog Hedwig (possibly slightly more enthusiastically than hoped for and with tongue movements that Harris may not have counted on) to the great acclaim of the whole crowd. Another got to sniff Harris’ underwear while Hedwig was straddling audience members as he prowled around the auditorium.

Harris is fearless and unabashed in all of this. He ad-libs cleverly and with waspish and vicious intent, the notion of a ribald drag queen figure ingrained on every move, every gesture, every eye flutter and hip thrust. He is pulsatingly alive, relishing every aspect the performance sends by way of challenge.

And he sings ferociously well, like a seasoned rock star. His voice is thrilling; he handles the high, bleating top notes with singular ease, always on the note, always directly in the core of the sound, always exactly right, and powerful. Equally, though, he gives the softer, more painful passages delicate and beautiful phrasing, sustaining the quality of the sound with properly reinforced breathing and marvellous use of timbre, pause and pace.

He is especially good in The Origin Of Love, Sugar Daddy, Hedwig’s Lament and Midnight Radio. But there are no dud musical moments from him.

It’s not that he sings it better than John Cameron Mitchell; it’s that he makes the role his own. Emphatically and with brio and boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Having seen this glittering turn, it is difficult to imagine a world where Harris does not walk off with a Tony Award. He certainly should.

Lena Hall is outstanding as Yitzhak, her voice magnificent, hearty and true. She has excellent comic timing and the crowd went absolutely wild when she finally was allowed to return to female persona and triumphantly entered through the auditorium in glorious feminine Las Vegas finery. Her deadpan counterpoint to Harris’ boisterous energy is perfect.

The band, led by Justin Craig, are absolutely terrific; the music is played powerfully, evocatively and with real rock star style. It is overwhelmingly good to listen to this band of musicians work theatrical magic.

Michael Meyer directs proceedings with real style and a marvellous sense for the visuals. Julian Crouch’s set design is wonderfully deranged and Adrienne Phillips provides gaudy, eccentric and absolutely delicious costumes. Harris’ Lion King Tina Turner is particularly good.

The Dad and his lad were shell shocked by the end. But they stayed. And that, actually, is what is important about their tale.

This is spellbinding, miraculous work.

Broadway really is on fire this season – and Neil Patrick Harris is in a Firestarter league all of his own.

Completely unmissable.

Book tickets for Hedwig On Broadway

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