It’s been almost a year since “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” returned to New York. In that time, theatergoers have been electrified by Neil Patrick Harris, charmed by Andrew Rannells and romanced by Michael C. Hall, who each put their personal stamp on the character of Hedwig, the (imperfectly transformed) transgendered woman who rocks and rages through a concert version of her extraordinary life. Until Darren Criss takes over, the part has been claimed by John Cameron Mitchell, book author and star of the original 1998 Off Broadway production, and who, it must be said, still owns this role.
The wooden crutch and leg cast (following an onstage knee injury) are serendipitous symbols of what makes Mitchell the ideal personification of the unforgettable character he wrote 17 years ago. Looking beyond the raw fury and rebellious defiance that fuels Hedwig’s blistering stage persona, you can now see, as well as sense, the vulnerable core of her tough punk character. Musically, the vulnerability that comes through in “Wicked Little Town” is the direct antithesis of the fierce defiance of “Tear Me Down.”
Confirmation of that impression comes at the end of the show, when Mitchell steps out of Hedwig’s camouflaging finery and stands near naked, exposing his slight if perfectly formed physique. At that revealing moment, he looks like a more feral and dangerous version of “the slip of a girly-boy from East Berlin” who was wooed and wounded by the American G.I. (viciously mocked and excoriated in the musical rant “Sugar Daddy”) responsible for her botched vaginoplasty and miserable life as a war bride.
Not that Hedwig would ever admit to any character frailty. Should any sign of weakness surface, she’ll strangle it, usually by tormenting her adoring husband, Yitzhak, played by the great, good Lena Hall, who won a Tony Award for putting up with the abuse.
Of necessity, the rock-star physicality of Mitchell’s performance also had to come down a notch or two. There’s no more climbing the scenery and those towering golden boots just had to go. But in the same compensatory way, the stand-and-deliver adjustment surely accounts for the nerve-wracking intensity of this star performance.
Mitchell worked in close collaboration with co-creator Stephen Trask to dramatize Hedwig’s extraordinary life story, so it’s no surprise that he has a lived-in relationship with Trask’s pounding punk-rock score. But the fabulous Angry Inch band (composed of Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and crazy drummer-boy Peter Yanowitz) seem energized by sharing the stage with him. They practically levitate on “Angry Inch” and their signature anthem “Midnight Radio.” And so, by the way, does the audience.