It’s not easy being Hedwig, in more ways than one.
Hedwig’s had a rough go of things, as she recounts, with musical accompaniment, throughout the course of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. She underwent a sex change operation in order to marry an American soldier— only for the operation to fail and for her husband to abandon her in the middle of Kansas. And she was later jilted again by her first true love, a younger man whose music career she helped launch, only then to suffer the cruel irony of watching him reach heights far greater than her own.
For any actor brave enough to take on the role, being Hedwig is demanding. It requires him to be on stage for all but a few of the show’s 100-minute run time, and to command an audience’s attention almost single-handedly. It requires the assumption of multiple identities and voices — Hedwig’s former lovers, for instance, Luther Robinson and Tommy Gnosis — as well as the extreme, multifarious aspects of Hedwig’s own larger-than-life personality. It requires quick costume changes and acrobatics and descending from the sky (via harness) like a bedazzled angel.
For Darren Criss, the latest to don the many wigs of the genderqueer glam rocker, taking on Hedwig comes with unique pressures. On top of the intrinsic challenges of the role, he’s got to fill the very big high-heeled, golden, sparkling shoes of Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, and most recently Hedwig co-creator John Cameron Mitchell.
Indeed, it may not be easy being Hedwig, but you wouldn’t know it watching the Glee alum, who makes all of it looks effortless, with boundless energy and ample acting and singing chops. He’s the youngest actor to play the role so far, and as a longtime fan of the show, his enjoyment of the part is obvious, particularly its comic elements. He brings a certain grace to the part, too, even when he’s spitting, kicking and grinding on audience members.
Granted, he’s working with material that’s tried and true. Hedwig debuted Off-Broadway in 1998, and has been staged in cities across the country and countries around the world. In 2001 it was turned into a movie. A story so frequently told for more than a decade may seem like a stale platform for an actor, but Hedwig is one of those musicals that keeps on giving. Hedwig, meanwhile, is one of those characters, who, even in her specificity, gives ample room for an actor to explore and make her his own. Criss has done just that, and I’m curious to see how Taye Diggs will do it when he picks up the mantle next month, making him the first African-American to play the part on Broadway.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, who became the first African-American to play Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak when she joined the show in April, proves once again her affinity for rock musicals (she’s previously appeared in American Idiot and Passing Strange on Broadway) here. In the male role, she possesses a cool, silent swagger (which is frequently met by unbridled shrieking from the audience), but when she gets the chance to sing solo, her voice impresses with its awesome range and power. With Jones as a right hand man, things can only get easier.