Stomping around the stage like Godzilla terrorizing Tokyo, the “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig (Darren Criss) spends nearly two hours performing what is less a traditional musical and more an almost one-man drag/cabaret show. An East Berliner who was seduced and abandoned by an American G.I., he finally made it to America after the botched sex change referred to in his band’s name, The Angry Inch: “My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch / Now all I got is a Barbie Doll crotch,” he sings in the show’s title song. He is headlining what he claims is a one-night-only concert at the famous Belasco Theatre, where Brando exploded in 1946 and John Barrymore sang his swan song in 1939. Based on the film by John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is every inch a rock ‘n’ roll musical, with its star rending his heart from his chest for all to see while he sings (or, rather, shrieks) with a manic energy that is half expert showmanship and half narcissistic insecurity.
Hedwig’s is very much a quintessential gay narrative: discarded by all the men in his life, including the rock star Tommy Gnosis, his drag is a simultaneous exposure and hiding, reflecting a mixed desire to be seen and to be forgotten, to be celebrated and vilified. In the middle of one of his self-pitying rants, he cries out, “I’ve earned the right to feel nothing.” Mr. Criss, whose previous work certainly isn’t as gritty as this, proves that he is entirely comfortable with the nakedness and the outlandishness of this part; he has a great deal of fun with audience interaction and double entendres about full mouths and bended knees (coining the word “disasterbate” along the way), but he also thoroughly convincing as the makeup-smeared, melancholy clown, like something out of Fassbinder. And Rebecca Naomi Jones, playing his “husband” Yitzhak, formerly known as the Jewish drag queen Crystal Nacht, offers a quiet counterpoint to Hedwig’s lunacy, her moon-eyed sadness nicely accenting his hysterics.
At times there is something almost abusive about Hedwig, which is pitched at a glass-shattering volume and almost relentlessly electrifying. But it does ultimately earn this abusiveness, and the melodrama mostly plays well. The Broadway musical is normally so meticulously staged and manicured; here, Hedwig admirably unleashes its angrier and messier side.