It’s impossible to deny that the wild applause and screams of aproval for Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch are the sounds of an audience enjoying their experience; but I’m just cynical enough to think that has less to do with the delivery of the musical itself than the fact that the musical comes in the guise of a rock concert being performed by an extravagant, quippy transvestite (payed by a star who knows exactly how to work the room) and his band.
But fueling the musical is what's really, or should be, important: a slender story about a young man who was so desperate to escape from behind the Iron Curtain that he submitted to a sex change operation that would turn out to be a botch job, leaving him with…well, the angry inch. And how that has affected his life and relationships since (one relationship in particular).
Harris, who of course plays Hedwig, has become a musical theatre idol, because of his clear adoration of the genre, his extraordinary versatility and his gleefully irreverent (yet genuinely love-driven) emceeing of the Tony Awards for the last several years. And there’s no question that he’s perfect casting for Hedwig, nor that he has the requisite acting chops to do the story component as much justice as the rock concert component.
But director Michael Mayer, as he does quite often, has “buried the lead” to use a journalist’s term (and employ a pun, come to think of it) behind projections and rock concert effects, such that the narrative material between songs, that takes you to a very sad and exposed place—or that’s supposed to—seems more like special material, bereft of the gravitas needed to make the emotional points really land. They sure didn't for me, in any event.
And as I say, it would seem for many, perhaps most, that this doesn’t really matter. They’re there for the event more than the story, they understand enough; and the estimable Mr. Harris, even though (seemingly) undirected in any meaningful way (the mechanics of stagecraft aside), knows how to deliver an evening of persona that satisfies them.
But if the rock-concert/star-turn aspects by themselves aren’t enough for you (partucularly if you’re not constitutionally built to dig a rock concert without the über-theatrical context to validate the experience as a metaphor for something larger), then I suspect that, as I did, you may find this iteration of Hedwig to be more than a few angry inches short of the mark.
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