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'Hedwig,' Now A Broadway Diva, Is Back In Town At The Pantages

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Think of almost any American musical theater piece that's attained widespread popularity, and the word "Broadway" invariably pops to mind. Only a few musicals have cultivated lasting recognition without the imprimatur of an initial production on the Great White Way. One of these is writer-actor John Cameron Mitchell and songwriter-musician Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which introduced itself to the world in 1998 not from a grand proscenium stage near New York's Times Square, but in the 280-seat converted ballroom of a transients' boarding house in the far west Greenwich Village.

Broadway producers at the time wanted nothing to do with this punk rock-infused, mock-autobiographical performance by the "internationally ignored" East German-born drag chanteuse Hedwig, whose botched sex reassignment surgery has left her with an intermediate one-inch mound of genitalia. (The then-head of the Shubert Organization, which owns about half the theaters on Broadway, told a class of theater students I was in around that time that he found the show appalling.) Still, even without support from the corporate theater boardrooms, successful Hedwig productions opened around the country and the world over the next decade and a half, including a run at the Fonda Theatre in L.A. co-produced by David Bowie. The movie version was released in 2001.

By 2014, of course, the s.r.o. that once housed the first production of Hedwig had been converted into a hipster-friendly hotel (its theater space now a popular cocktail bar) and Hedwig on Broadway was on its way to becoming the longest-running show in the history of the Shubert Organization's Belasco Theater. Now touring the U.S., this more recent Hedwig iteration opened Wednesday night at the 2,700-seat Pantages Theater in Hollywood, with Darren Criss (of Glee fame) wrapping himself in the title role and making it his own with relentless elan.

One counter-intuitive reason why Hedwig holds up well today is that the first production contained so much topical and site-specific material that the show has to be updated and tailored for each new run in a new town. Seeing it right now, there are enough comic references to the Pantages's hit-and-miss production history and the greater L.A. cultural landscape (including a nod to "the gender-neutral bathroom at Yum Yum Donuts") to create a momentary impression that this musical has always been set here. Only an errant barb suggesting that theater in Los Angeles is all "a mess" reminds us that this production is in from out of town.

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The original narrative of Hedwig's monologue is enhanced considerably for this Broadway production. Rather than performing in an intimate nightclub, Hedwig now tells us she is making a one-night-only appearance at the Pantages after the sudden closing of a failed musical theater adaptation of The Hurt Locker, whose bombed-out production set (designed by Julian Crouch) is still on stage as we enter the theater. The nearby rock concert that Hedwig repeatedly listens in on is understood to be at the Hollywood Bowl, which we hear through an upstage faux-exterior door that does open out in the actual direction of the nearby Bowl. The character of Hedwig's husband, the retired drag queen Yitzhak (Lena Hall, who won a Tony for this role), figures more significantly than before in Hedwig's climactic final transformation.

While laugh lines wash over us a mile a minute (some pretty funny, others more on the level of Vegas lounge act patter), the best part—the defining part—of Hedwig, as they always have been, are the musical numbers. Engaging as he is in Hedwig's ongoing chat with the audience, Criss becomes a hyper-dynamic figure in these great songs. Backed by a four-piece punk band ensemble dubbed The Angry Inch, along with Hall's Yitzhak, Criss irresistibly evokes the kind of restless exuberance that has always been inherent in the performances of punk icons like Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls. Costumed by Arianne Phillips and groomed by Mike Potter, Criss' Hedwig is also totally glam enough for Hollywood.

One might have been forgiven at the end of the last century for hoping that Hedwig was going to nudge American musical theater in a new direction with an expanded musical and thematic range. So far, that's happened sporadically at best, though a few shows like Spring Awakening, Kinky Boots and Hamilton bear traces of their genderqueer theatrical forebear's DNA. Adaptable and renewable as Mitchell and Trask's show has proven to be, at least, we can probably affirm now that we know Hedwig will never die.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays for eight shows a week through November 27. Tickets $35-$225 (plus Ticketmaster charges). Discount tickets for some dates available on Goldstar. On four dates (November 6, November 13, November 20, the second show on November 25), Lena Hall will be playing Hedwig.