East German genderqueer glam rocker and “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig is finally getting her due at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, commanding the spotlight with glitz and fury.
This “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the 2014 Broadway iteration, a glamorous, streamlined update of the ‘90s cult classic from director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”).
Stepping into Hedwig’s golden-heeled boots is Darren Criss, a San Francisco native, former “Glee” Warbler and all-around Tumblr icon. Criss is also a naturally charismatic performer, and he easily sheds his familiar nice boyfriend demeanor to inhabit the droll, muscular, flamboyant rage of Hedwig.
The musical is structured like a concert — a talkative one-night engagement staged on the ruins of an ill-fated musical called “The Hurt Locker,” which opened and closed on the same day. SHN cleverly printed an elaborate fake program for the failed production. The glorious set by Julian Crouch looks as if the heavens have blown open on the junkyard from “Cats,” a fantastic crater of purple and pink.
Through monologues and raucous rock numbers, Hedwig tells her story. Criss speaks in a soft, feminine voice but a note of menace always lurks just beneath the surface of Hedwig’s facade of crass indifference. Hedwig is clever, magnetic, selfish, deeply wronged and frequently cruel to her long-suffering husband Yitzhak (the excellent Lena Hall, who won the Tony for this role), a former drag queen turned dutiful companion. Co-creator John Cameron Mitchell’s work — which he co-created with composer Stephen Trask — is stuffed full of lewd one-liners but balances the comedic with the painful and shades in Hedwig’s character, revealing the pathos of her search for her missing other half.
Born Hansel Schmidt in East Berlin, Hedwig agrees to have a gender-affirming surgery at the urging of Luther, an American soldier who wants to marry her and take her away from Communist Germany. The operation is botched, leaving Hedwig with an “angry inch” for genitalia. Hedwig is marked by this physical scar but also from the emotional scars inflicted on her by her hard mother, by Luther who eventually leaves her and by a boy she believes is her soulmate — Tommy.
Hedwig befriends (with benefits) a shy Christian teenager named Tommy, but he becomes repulsed by her indefinable gender and leaves her, taking with him the songs Hedwig wrote and the rock star name she gave him — Tommy Gnosis. During the duration of Hedwig’s show, the now-successful Tommy is playing a far bigger concert at AT&T Park offstage — local references find their way into Mitchell’s accommodating script. For example, a door on stage opens onto the thundering, overpowering applause of this other performance.
It is a testament to how infectious Stephen Trask’s score is that Hedwig’s monologues, clever as they are, occasionally feel like a waiting game to the next musical number. Those musical numbers are sublime. “Origin of Love” is accompanied with lovely animated drawings projected on a screen, illustrating the mythic concept of true love that drives Hedwig’s journey. The lighting by Kevin Adams during “Exquisite Corpse” is a powerful showstopper all on its own. There isn’t a dud in the score.
A particular highlight comes from Lena Hall’s Yitzhak, who pulls a Judi Dench — stealing the show in a single scene. Even her softer backup vocals during Hedwig’s numbers are downright mesmerizing, but “The Long Grift” is a blissfully larger dose of Hall’s gorgeously raspy, powerful voice. Hall will also be playing Hedwig for one performance a week during the show’s run.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a triumphant and dizzyingly energetic piece of theater. Criss exudes sex appeal, as he spits and grinds his way around the first few rows. The audience engagement heightened the irrepressible rock and roll adrenaline of the show. The concert within “Hedwig” transcends the stage, transforming an audience of theatergoers into a sea of fans, lifting their hands up in praise of Hedwig and Yitzhak.
A previous version of this article may have implied that John Cameron Mitchell is the sole creator of the play. In fact, he is its co-creator, along with Stephen Trask.