Michael L. Quintos
Los Angeles Critic
It's really not much of a shock to realize right away that Darren Criss is a bona fide triple-threat superstar.
The handsome and talented star of stage and screen—who first caught my attention playing the title role in the unofficial Harry Potter musical that became an online viral hit, and who then later rose to stratospheric fame as gifted gay teen Blaine in the musical TV series Glee—exudes plenty of charm and charisma so effortlessly that it is no wonder that even while disguised as an East German genderqueer lead singer of a glam rock band, his winning personality still shines through every time.
In a theatrical touchdown for the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Criss has agreed to reprise the notable title role he stepped into last year on Broadway: as Hedwig in the just-launched national tour of the rousing 2014 Tony Award-winning reboot of the glam rock musical HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, which began last month in San Francisco and continues its Los Angeles-area performances through November 27 (Euan Morton assumes the role for the rest of the tour starting November 29 in San Diego). Featuring solid direction from Michael Mayer and dynamic new musical staging from choreographer Spencer Liff, the searingly electric, engagingly hilarious show, at its core, celebrates the triumph of living life as authentic and as tenaciously as possible, no matter the constant obstacles. It's certainly a wonderful message to remind everyone in such uneasy times of late.
Explosive, sassy, and utterly mesmerizing, Criss—as evidenced in his recent Opening Night performance in L.A.—easily elevates the already exhilarating production tenfold, as he sings (well, rocks) his way to narrate his out-and-proud character's story up to this very point. In this case, that point in time is playing a gig on a theater stage in Hollywood that just the night before housed an ill-fated, just-shuttered production of "Hurt Locker - The Musical" (fake Playbills for the fictional musical are scattered about the theater and its abandoned grungy set, has, apparently, been left behind for the band).
For 90 seemingly non-stop, intermission-less minutes, Criss—trading in his usual buttery pop-tinged vocal sytlings for powerful rock-infused ferocity—commands attention with every second and handily gets it. Following in the footsteps of prior Hedwigs Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, and (again) originator John Cameron Mitchell, Criss took on the role as a replacement (albeit a very marquee-baiting one), yet proves how outstanding he is in interpreting Hedwig, disappearing into the character with his own cadence and emotional tone.
Even better, he is clearly having a ball in the very showy role, which finds him orating Hedwig's truth and, at times, even interacting directly with the audience (some lucky patrons even get really up-close) while in a mini-skirt, wig, and drag-lite makeup. The show is basically one long, drawn-out monologue with inserted rock songs—a one-man, er, I mean, one-woman cabaret show on hormones, steroids, and glitter. And Criss slays in the show.
The Angry Inch, Hedwig's appropriately cheeky-named band (Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, Peter Yanowitz who make up Tits of Clay), are there to provide musical accompaniment, with Hedwig's "man-Friday" husband—the loyal yet oft-humiliated band roadie and occasional back-up vocalist Yitzhak—rocking out in their midst despite constant teasing from Hedwig. Yitzhak, as it turns out, is so continually enchanted by Hedwig that he agrees to squelch his deeply-rooted desire for dressing in drag himself in order for her to marry him—and to keep the spotlight trained specifically on his more glamorous, drag-tastic wife.
In another L.A. casting coup, Yitzhak is played by the spectacular Lena Hall, who is also back in the musical (at least for the San Francisco and L.A. runs) reprising the gender-bent role that won her the Tony Award. And how's this for acting versatility: for four performances of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH's Los Angeles engagement, Hall will actually step up to the role of Hedwig herself, making her the first actor ever to play both gender-bent roles in the same musical (during those four performances, Shannon Conley will take over the role of Yitzhak). Together, though, Criss and Hall make for an awesome duo—and, wow, wait until you hear Hall herself. If you're new to the talents of Hall, prepare to be just as amazed, if not more.
Featuring a humorous (and, now, updated) book by John Cameron Mitchell and high-octane music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the wildly imaginative, and very original musical tells the story of Hedwig Robinson, who, at the moment, is in the middle of a concert tour with her band the Angry Inch, named so as a nod to her, um, particular physical attribute. The path of her concert tour, by the way, is dictated by the same touring path taken by famous rock star and her former pupil/muse/collaborator/lover Tommy Gnosis. Despite a recent scandal, Tommy's star is still somehow on the rise. Hedwig's not happy about this.
Bitter and, well, angry that Tommy continues to enjoy a more successful, hits-filled rock career over her—even though he's singing songs that she mostly wrote or they co-wrote together—Hedwig occasionally opens the door of her "smaller" venue to hear the loud sounds emanating from the larger stadium-sized venue where Tommy's concert is taking place (in a cheeky localized update, Hedwig protests that while she's at the Pantages, Tommy is at the Hollywood Bowl).
This, naturally, triggers Hedwig to talk about her personal journey in becoming the fabulous "internationally ignored" creature she has blossomed into today.
It all begins in East Berlin, Germany, where young Hedwig—the offspring of an ennui-plagued German mom and a vanished American soldier dad—was back then still known as young, adorably effeminate "girly boy" Hansel Schmidt. Hansel loved all things American, including its pop culture and, yes, its rock music… particularly the glam kind. Inspired by Aristophanes' "The Origin of Love," Hansel is convinced that he, like the three spliced figures described in Aristophanes' hypothesis, also has another "half" that he must find. That other half, he thought, is most likely in the magical world of… America.
Years later, the now adult Hansel meets the man that could possibly make this dream a reality. Enter Luther Robinson, a visiting American soldier who quickly takes a liking to Hansel, whom he finds irresistibly sexy (it helped that Hansel was sunbathing nude when they first meet). Luther lusts after candy-loving Hansel, and is—surprise!—not the least bit turned off even after learning Hansel is actually a dude. But Hansel is more than happy to dress in drag to please Luther's proclivities.
Soon Luther genuinely falls in love with Hansel and proposes marriage and an eventual move to the United States. One problem: they can't marry, of course, because Hansel is anatomically born a male. Much to Hansel's surprise, his mother Hedwig comes up with a solution: Hansel's mom gives her son her passport (and, therefore, the new name) and arranges for him to have a sex change operation to become a female.
Well, things don't go as planned.
The doctor performing the surgery, well, screws it up—leaving newly-dubbed Hedwig with just a "one-inch mound of flesh" protruding from where a promised vagina should have been. Ouch.
Despite the botched surgery, Luther and "Hedwig" proceed with their marriage anyway and they move to Junction City, Kansas—which, understandably, is not exactly the kind of glam life Hedwig was picturing when dreaming of a life in the USA. A year later, Luther dumps Hedwig—for another man (!)—just as the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down, ending the decades-long separation of the two halves of Hedwig's home country. Geez, everybody else seems to be finding their other half much easier than she is.
But, as expected, the tenacious ex-Mrs. Robinson emerges from her sadness and decides to perk up by embracing and enhancing her glamorous feminine side— literally, becoming her name: "Head?" Say hello to "Wig." The fabulous, long-dormant diva arises and forms a new rock-and-roll persona complete with a band.
In order to fund her new creative hobby, Hedwig takes on a few odd jobs here and there—the kinds of jobs that someone as, uh, unique as her can get (or give, depending on the situation haha). She soon develops affections for the teenage brother of one of the children she babysits, Tommy Speck, an endearingly naive singer-wannabe saddled with a serious Christianity-complex. After Tommy hears one of Hedwig's songs (which she tells him he inspired), he becomes excited with the prospect of collaborating on songs with his sister's glamorous babysitter.
As one might have foreseen, Tommy and Hedwig's creative collaboration extends into a romantic relationship. Hedwig, completely smitten and convinced she's finally found her missing "half," christens her protégé-turned-lover with a new stage name: Tommy Gnosis, and molds him to become a glam rock god, which Tommy savors. Unfortunately, when Tommy discovers Hedwig's previous anatomical identity, he cannot bring himself to love Hedwig back and bolts, taking all their songs with him.
Pretty involved and complex story, right? Well, if you are new to the edgy material and were unable to follow all the specific details of the story while experiencing HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, it's perfectly okay because the big-picture bullet points are quite sufficient to enjoy the overall experience. In all honesty, for me, the stage musical is part rock concert, part stand-up comedy set, part intense psychiatric office visit… and all of it is absolutely enthralling. Trask's beautifully crafted songs compliment the vibe. Hedwig's story, her witty one-liners (and Criss' perfectly delivered in-the-moment ad libs), and, finally, seeing her ultimate personal acceptance (and transferring part of that empowerment to Yitzhak) are, together, so wholly different from anything else out there in musical theater land.
Of course, for a better, richer presentation of Hedwig's story itself, you need look no further than Mitchell's own film adaptation of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, a beautifully layered, genuinely moving piece of cinematic art that blends fringe animation and rock glam edge with a fully fleshed-out story that provides visuals for what is merely spoken about in the stage version.
However, let's not dismiss the original stage extravaganza and, now, its vibrant modernized stage revival so quickly. This rock-spiritual is best savored live and, yes, in-the-moment. Hedwig's final transformation brings it home.
The added bonus: seeing the superb work of costume designer Arianne Phillips, lighting designer Kevin Adams, wigs/make-up designer Mike Potter, projection designer Benjamin Pearcy, animation designer Phosphene/John Bair, and the aforementioned war-torn set design (for the non-existent Hurt Locker The Musical) by Julian Crouch.
But make no mistake, Criss' return to the role is a big frikkin deal. If you get the chance, go see him (and, of course, the incredible Ms. Hall) in one of the most unique, enjoyably atypical stage musical experiences you will ever see.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH by Joan Marcus.
Performances of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Starring Darren Criss and Lena Hall at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through November 27, 2016 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Lena Hall's appearances as Hedwig are scheduled for November 13, 20, and 25. Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.