I can only ever approach Hedwig with a combination of awe and trepidation.
The first time I met her, back in her off-Broadway original incarnation, my worries were all about, “What’s this crazy sounding musical we’re going to? And who is this John Cameron Mitchell carrying the show?” Worries that were of course unfounded, as I quickly became enamored of the show, of Mitchell, and of Hedwig herself.
Flash forward 16 years … I’m going to see Neil Patrick Harris, newly opened in Hedwig: Broadway!, and my worries had less to do with him as a performer (I knew he’d be fantastic in the part, and he was, even better than I’d hoped), and more about how the show would translate to the big, bad Broadway stage. And like so much in her life, Hedwig rose to the challenge and shined.
And then … then I heard that Darren Criss was cast as Hedwig. And all I could think was, “Uh oh.”
Let me get this out there right now. I am a huge Darren Criss fan. I’ve seen every episode of Glee. I’ve watched him serenade Chris Colfer to “Teenage Dream” about a thousand times and swooned every time. Heck, I’ve watched — multiple times — A Very Potter Musical, which I think is pure satiric musical genius. But Hedwig? No way. He’s too young, I thought. He has no edge, I thought. A disaster in the making.
Well once again, Hedwig surprised the hell out of me. From the moment he descends from the rafters in full Hedwig drag, it’s clear Criss has got this, fully in command of the role and already interplaying with the audience in a confrontational way that’s crucial to the show’s success. Right away, you get the feeling that Criss — and Hedwig by extension — are fully living in this specific performance, with you as
his her specific audience.
That clear sense of Criss’ comfort with the role was only reinforced the night I saw the show, when miking problems plagued the initial few moments. Criss not only worked around them effortlessly but turned them into a spontaneous opportunity for hilarious ad-libbing, quipping, “I thought this was supposed to be a Broadway show … not Doctor Zhivago.”
The first big surprise, though, for me came in the opening musical number. True Hedwig confession time: Hedwig’s opening number, “Tear Me Down,” has never been a favorite of mine. But Criss’ off-the-charts vocal chops and energy made the song new to me and a highlight of the show. The same was true of the other hard rock/punk numbers. If Criss was a bit more subdued (although still very good) on the ballads, he truly excelled on the more hard hitting songs in a way that made them as emotional as they are energizing. This was true of “Angry Inch,” but most especially of the finale number, “Midnight Radio,” where Criss fully becomes Hedwig’s male alter-ego, Tommy Gnosis.
While that song, and Criss’ performance there, are the strongest of the night, that’s not to detract from his performance in full Hedwig regalia. There was never a moment here where, as I feared, I’d see only see Darren Criss on stage in a wig and a dress, or Blaine for that matter, in some Vocal Adrenaline competition stunt, creeping into the performance. Instead, Criss was fully committed to — and indistinguishable from — Hedwig from beginning to end. And yet, also a different Hedwig than I’d seen before.
There’s perhaps no getting away from the age difference. Criss is younger than the actors who’ve portrayed the character before, and references in the show to the fall of the Berlin Wall and albums only reinforce the disconnect. But Criss makes his youthful energy work for the character. This Hedwig might lack NPH’s salacious leer, or JCM’s worldly weariness. But she’s a Hedwig in her own right, seizing her opportunity to be front and center before a live audience and clearly basking in their adoration. She’s the sweetest of the Hedwigs, and the audience eats her up like gummy bears.
It helps, too, that the show has been retuned to be more timely than ever. Jokes abound about current Broadway shows, like “Kinky Boots” and “Something Rotten,” and there’s even a hilarious joke about John Cameron Mitchell himself. But the best addition — and I’d be remiss not to call this out — is Rebecca Naomi Jones taking over Yitzhak, from Tony winner Lena Hall. Jones brings her own take to the role, and her vocals are so strong and so heart-breaking that she threatens to steal the entire show with a few lines sung from the ostensible previous theater occupant Hurt Locker: The Musical. (Note to producers: put Jones and Criss in this musical and musical theater queens everywhere, myself included, will flock in droves).
When Criss and Jones joined the stage in their climactic duet — he looking jaw-droppingly hot in short shorts, she a confidently wigged Hedwig stand-in — the audience bursts into exuberant cheers. This is a Hedwig that can only fill one with glee.