Hello, love: Hedwig slams her Angry Inch in our faces

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Darren Criss is Hedwig, a rock star with issues, in the Broadway touring production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Below: Lena Hall reprises her Tony Award-winning role as Yitzhak in Hedwig. Both Criss and Hall are San Francisco natives, and they kicked off the Broadway tour at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre in their hometown. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch launches its first Broadway national tour with the power of a barbecue fired with jet fuel. An explosion of rock, lights, humor and heart, this show is a rarity among rarities: a quirky late ’90s off-Broadway hit that inspired a devoted cult following that seemingly peaked with its big-screen adaptation in 2001. Over the years, however, Hedwig’s tragic tale of rejection and glam-rock transformation has traveled around the world and created an international league of Heheads.

By 2014, the next logical step for a misfit rock musical with a built-in and avid fan base was Broadway. Armed with director Michael Mayer and star Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig opened on Broadway to rapturous response and ran for a year and a half with five Hedwigs after the Tony-winning Harris departed the production. One of those Hedwigs, “Glee” heartthrob Darren Criss now headlines the national tour, which kicked off in fine form Wednesday night at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

The show is essentially rock concert and monologue, making it an extraordinary showcase for its star, but creators John Cameron Mitchell (book and the original and still greatest Hedwig) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) add other levels to this show, including a secondary lead, Yitzhak, Hedwig’s Croatian husband, a former drag queen whose presence adds even more depth to the show’s gender fluidity and sexual vibrancy. For the tour, Yitzhak is played by the fierce Lena Hall, who won a Tony for the role on Broadway. In a delightful twist, Hall will take over as Hedwig for one performance a week (schedule below).

This tour recreates the Broadway production faithfully, right down to the concept that for one night only, Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch (named after the result of her botched sex-change operation), are taking to the stage in a legit theater after the failure of Hurt Locker: The Musical (as on Broadway, the theater floor is littered with playbills for that bomb of a show, which opened the previous night and closed at intermission – do yourself a favor and spend time with that playbill because it is hilarious). The set for Hurt Locker remains, and Yitzhak performs a snippet of the show’s love theme. Otherwise, aside from some script tinkering to make it San Francisco-centric (references to the “newly annoying Mission,” Uber X, a gender-neutral bathroom on a idling Google bus, doing drugs in the Tenderloin as one does), this is Hedwig as she is meant to be seen: damaged, fabulous, ferocious, heartbroken, funny, loud and aggressively awesome.

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I saw Harris do the show on Broadway, and he was phenomenal, although he didn’t inhabit the character as fully or as emotionally as the remarkable Kevin Cahoon in the much scrappier San Francisco debut of the show at the Victoria Theatre in 2001. Every actor who dons Hedwig’s many (and marvelous) wigs will bring something unique to the party, and Criss brings extraordinary energy and a genuine rock vibe to the scorching score. He shows off some sharp comic timing, although his Hedwig voice seems less East Berlin than it does a governess raised in London by German parents. Aside from the songs, which he imbues with passion and grit, Criss’ best moments are those in which he’s playing the American characters: Luther, the GI who marries young Hansel, turns him into Hedwig and lands her in a Kansas mobile home; and Tommy Speck, an Army brat whom Hedwig takes under her wing (and then some) and turns into the rock star Tommy Gnosis. At 29, Criss is the youngest of the Broadway Hedwigs, and that’s a little problematic for a world weary and wise character who tosses off lines like, “One day in the late mid-’80s I was in my early late 20s.” Criss was born in the late ’80s, so when Hedwig is referencing Google buses and placing the action of the show in the here and now, it doesn’t fully make sense.

But Hedwig doesn’t have to fully make sense to be an extraordinary experience, and that’s what this is. Just hearing those songs played full throttle (the fiery four-piece band, under the music direction of Justin Craig are all from the Broadway company) is a transporting experience. Add in the fantastic costumes by Arianne Phillips (that hair dress!) and towering wigs by Mike Potter and you have a rock musical dream in the flesh. The nuclear explosion lighting design (by Kevin Adams) can be a bit much, but if elements of Hedwig aren’t a bit much, it’s not really Hedwig.

The nuance, tenderness and, ultimately power of Hall as Yitzhak provides ample evidence of why a seemingly secondary presence in the show would not only garner awards but make Hall a star. Hers is a voice that can be delicate and searing, and her physical transformation in the show is part of what makes the quasi-religious conclusion so mind-bogglingly glorious. Lift up your hands indeed.

[more on Hedwig]
Check out San Francisco kids Darren Criss and Lena Hall and composer Stephen Trask chatting about Hedwig and performing songs from the show here.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through Oct. 30 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

From the department of YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WANT TO MISS THIS:

Lena Hall takes over as Hedwig on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8pm, Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 8pm and Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 8pm.

Local kids make good, rock out in Hedwig

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San Francisco native Lena Hall reprises her Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway touring company of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Below: Former “Glee” heartthrob Darren Criss, also a San Francisco native, plays internationally ignored song stylist Hedwig in the show at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photos by Joan Marcus

The coolness of Lena Hall and Darren Criss relates directly to the city of their birth. The two performers, one a Tony Award-winning Broadway star and the other a former object of “Glee” affection, are headlining the Broadway tour of the raging rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which begins Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Golden Gate Theatre in their hometown, San Francisco.

In advance of the tour launch and its stars’ homecoming, SHN, the resident producer, held an onstage conversation for its subscribers and guests with Hall, Criss and Hedwig composer/lyricist Stephen Trask. The event featured a chat with interviewer Adam Savage (of “MythBusters” fame) and there was music from the show. Here are some highlights, including video footage of both musical performances.

Let’s start with Criss, Hall and Trask performing “Sugar Daddy.

Lena Hall was a cat who rocked: Hall was on Broadway in Cats when she saw Hedwig in its off-Broadway run starring its co-creator John Cameron Mitchell. “I had no idea what the show was and just showed up at the Jane Street Theatre and literally had my mind blown,” Hall says. “By the end my hands were in the air, I was sobbing. I got the cast album immediately and listened to it for years straight. It was the first time I had seen a piece of theater that broke the mold of what I thought musical theater had to be. It was the first time I had seen rock music truly represented in perfect form in a theater piece. That was so exciting for me as a nerd rock kid – both loves combine din one piece. To this day, that cast recording is among my favorites.”

Stephen Trask on the origin of Hedwig and “The Origin of Love”: Collaborating with Mitchell on what was going to be an autobiographical piece about past lovers, Trask had already written “The Origin of Love” (inspired by a story in Plato’s Symposium), but then the project stalled. “John was talking about his life, and I was taking notes on a legal pad when he started talking about a babysitter he’d had who lived in a trailer. He would go to her trailer and act out songs and dance for her, and she would give him vodka. she also had a lot of dates, which was weird because she wasn’t attractive and she didn’t always know who the dates were. The dates would come to the trailer, and they’d peek out at them. If they looked OK, John would run out the back door, but if the date didn’t look OK, they’d both run out the back door. I was working at a drag club called Squeezebox every Friday night doing punk rock, and one night, we brought in a song we’d written, ‘Wicked Little Town,’ thinking that the babysitter character would be one of the main character’s past lovers and appear in one scene. It was an instant hit. We started getting bookings in clubs, so we wrote more until it became obvious this character was going to be in more than one scene.”

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Darren Criss did not shower with Stephen Trask to get this job.: While attempting to shower Trask with compliments, Criss made what he called a Freudian slip and said that he had showered with Trask, which got a big laugh. That then became a running joke about how Criss ended up playing Hedwig on Broadway (following Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall and Mitchell himself (after Criss, Taye Diggs closed the show). The real story is that Trask saw Criss at the Broadway opening night and asked him to do it. Trask says the extent of Criss’ audition was him saying, “Let me check my schedule.” Criss is a little more serious about tackling such a daunting role as Hedwig, an immigrant from East Germany, a person who is a unique gender unto her/himself and who expresses the deepest of emotions through searing and tender and kick-ass and deep rock ‘n’ roll songs. “Inevitably, everybody who has ever played Hedwig is part of this narrative,” Criss says. “The team, right down to costumes and producers, has been pretty much the same since off Broadway. When someone says so-and-so did this, I don’t take offense. It’s part of the throughline. Not every Hamlet willl have talked to every other Hamlet, so the fact that I get to do this is really cool. I don’t know what I specifically bring to it. The coolest feedback I’ve gotten was one day on Broadway, a Wednesday, a two-show day. Afterwards, one guy says, ‘You’ve got to be the meanest Hedwig I’ve seen.’ Then, further down the line, another guy says, ‘You’re one of the sweeter Hedwigs.’ I think that’s probably the variable of the audience. That give and take can yield certain attitudes sometimes. Each show really is different.”

Lena Hall gives the best audition ever. So good they teach it in classes.: Hall calls her audition epic, and she means it. Though she was in a hit show, Kinky Boots, Hall knew she wanted to be in the Broadway production of Hedwig. “No ifs, ands or buts,” she says. “To audition for Yitzhak, I showed up as a man. Brought my guitarist from my band to be my accompanist. He went in first, I followed with my Marshall amp. We plugged in and I sang a song that was not on the audition list, Lita Ford’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly.’ Then sang ‘The Long Grift’ from the show. At my final callback, I did all material from the show. The instructions were to tell a story, tell a joke and never break character. They would ask me questions and I would improv a scene with John. I was such a fan that even being in the room with Stephen and John was heart attack city. So, on a Wednesday, between the matinee and evening show, I got into my Yitzhak drag and told a story about Yitzhak coming from a small town in Croatia, the sole producer of the yak hair used in the costumes made for Cats. It was a boomtown, which is how I knew about theater. The town went under when Cats closed on Broadway and his mother, who hoarded yak hair and made a sofa out of it, died in a fire after smoking a cigar. All that was left was a cassette of the Rent cast album. Yitzhak saw that as a sign from his mother to follow his dreams to Broadway. He shows up at the theater, but Rent has been replaced by Newsies. So my idea was this: I would get the audition room to donate to my Kickstarter fund to bring Rent back so I could play Angel. I made a 2 1/2-minute video, which I played them on my laptop. The whole time I’m thinking, ‘This is brilliant. I’m nailing it. But there was not a sound. Nobody laughed. John Cameron Mitchell made a sort of a noise at one point. Then I figured I bombed, blew it. I did my songs. Did my improv with John, which involved him kissing me. I was late for my half-hour call back at my show.” Of course she got the job. Trask says: “It was the best audition ever. People look at the tape of that audition and show it in acting classes. That’s how to audition for a show. Literally the best audition ever.”

We don’t like to talk about Ally Sheedy: Hall is making Hedwig history by being the first woman to play Yitzhak and Hedwig in the same production. She’ll take over the lead from Criss once a week. She’s not the first woman to play Hedwig, however. That honor fell to Ally Sheedy of The Breakfast Club fame. “They don’t like to mention Ally Sheedy,” Hall says, to which Trask adds, “She did Alley Sheedy for three hours in a modified Hedwig costume.” Criss says: “No one is more qualified than Lena Hall to do this. She’s like our next president: she’s been around, knows what to do and is, in fact, overqualified. I hope you all get to see her perform.”

And finally, here is Lena Hall, butt naked: Once again referring to how Criss showered with Trask to get the job, Hall says she has a story about the first preview of Hedwig on Broadway. “We didn’t know how it would play with the audience, and it was mind blowing,” Hall remembers. “I’m in my dressing room butt naked. BUTT NAKED. Nothing covering anything. I keep it clean down there, so I’m out for the world to see. With not even a knock, Stephen and John walk in. ‘You were so great!’ And they hug me. Finally I look at Stephen. He looks down. ‘Can you guys leave? Can I put a robe on?’ ‘Oh, we don’t care,’ they said. ‘I care!'” Next stop, Tony Award for featured actress in a musical.

Now let’s wrap up with some musical genius. Lena Hall takes lead vocal on “Midnight Radio.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs Oct.2 through 30 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$212 (subject to change). Visit www.shnsf.com.

Feeling gleeful with Darren Criss

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When Darren Criss was a kid going to American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory, he attended one of the company’s annual galas. Joel Grey was the headliner. Now Criss, all grown up and all of 25, is the headliner for this year’s ACT gala.

To say that San Francisco native Criss has been on a rocket to fame ever since his first appearance as Blaine Anderson on the hit FOX series “Glee” would be to understate his rise to national prominence. He’s had hit records and spent three weeks on Broadway (last January he replaced Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

How Criss has managed to keep a level head on this meteoric journey is a mystery, but in a conversation with the multi-talented young actor on a recent Friday morning, he came across as not only charming and grounded but also, perhaps not surprisingly, intelligent and funny.

I interviewed Criss about his headlining gig at ACT’s Expect the Unexpected gala this Sunday (April 15) for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

There wasn’t enough room in the story to include everything we talked about, so here are some of the “deleted scenes” if you will.

Q: What do you remember about working with 42nd Street Moon?
Working with them exposed me to a lot of stuff I fell in love with. Babes in Arms was an especially great experience. I sang “Where or When” for my “Glee” audition. I sang two songs, that and a jazzy rendition of “Baby One More Time.”

Q: When you bring friends back to San Francisco, what do you like to show them about where you grew up?
I’m very nostalgic. I went to Stuart Hall, which is reminiscent of Dalton Academy with this gorgeous Victorian architecture. I sneak in every now and then with friends and say, “Look, I went to school at Hogwarts. There’s such a great view from up there overlooking the Marina to the bridge. It’s the best. I love doing that. I like to show people a lot of the stuff I love about San Francisco. My parents joke that when I bring people home I should charge them for my tour.

Q: Last year you signed a record deal with Columbia. What’s the story on your album?
It’s like when you ask a writer, “Hey, so you’re writing a new book?” Yeah, always. There’s always something going on whether it’s tangible or concrete. It’s an ongoing process, always meeting with people. Songs are being worked on. yes, I’d love to put out something at some point soon. It’s always ongoing.

Q: You were only in H2S for three weeks. Would you consider going back?
It was the perfect amount of time. It was a blast. I never would have thought I’d be able to do something like that. It was so overwhelming and happened so fast. I knew it was going to be quick, so I was prepared for it to be mind blowing. It’s such a wonderful show. I was figuring out the character as I was going along, kind of like Finch, the character is doing has he goes along. In some ways, Broadway was imitating life.

[bonus videos]

A very brave Darren Criss answers all interview questions from Rolling Stone in song.

And here’s Criss performing for the Trevor Project (with Katy Perry).


Expect the Unexpected! ACT’s 2012 Season Gala starring Darren Criss and Bill Irwin is this Sunday, April 15, at the Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $500-$2,500. Call 415-439-2470 or visit www.act-sf.org/gala.

Hot Babes! Even hotter tunes!

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Alexandra Kaprielian, left, is Billie Smith, Zachary Franczak, center, is French aviator René Flambeau) and Michael Scott Wells is Val LaMar in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms. Below: The kids jump for joy at the very thought of putting on a show in a barn! Photos by davidallenstudio.com

Let it be said that Babes in Arms is one of the weirdest musicals with the greatest scores ever written. There have been weirder musicals and greater scores, but never in such striking combination.

You can see for yourself as 42nd Street Moon unfurls all the daffy delirium that is Babes in Arms on stage at the Eureka Theatre. Go for the weirdness but stay for the sheer pleasure of hearing “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Way Out West,” “Johnny One-Note” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” in their original context.

This is the second time that 42nd Street Moon has resurrected Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 show. The first time was in November of 1999, when the cast included Darren Criss, the newest cast member on the phenomenon known as Glee.

In fact, Glee and Babes in Arms have several things in common. For one, they’re both full of talented kids crazy about putting shows. For another, they both traffic in some terrific songs. And finally, they’re both about as reality-based as Santa Claus.

In Babes, whose book was written by its composers, a bunch of kids (we have to assume they’re younger than 18) are essentially abandoned by their vaudeville performer parents for six months with no money or means of support. The welfare department (in the form of the local Long Island sheriff) decides the kids should be shipped off to a work farm for their own protection.

The kids fight back! They’re not babes in arms. They’re babes in armor! And there’s work to be done to be done. In their youthful wisdom, they declare that putting on a show in the old barn will solve all their problems. If only President Obama went to the theater more often – he’d know that teenagers putting on shows in barns would surely end troubles in North Korea, the Middle East and Alaska.

Babes 1Not to give too much of the plot away, but when the show idea doesn’t work (aw, heck), the kids expect a solution for their troubles to drop from the sky. Which actually happens in the form a French aviator who crash lands in a nearby field. After being pummeled into unconsciousness, the pilot is imprisoned in a basement and impersonated by one of the kids. All in good fun.

Rather than being angry about the violence and abduction, the pilot is an incredibly good sport because – and you can feel this coming – the kids put on a show for him!

Richard Rodgers, in all his wisdom, feared that Babes, in spite of its extraordinary score, had not aged well, so in 1959, he commissioned George Oppenheimer to revise it. Characters and songs were cut, as was a subplot about performers of color being discriminated against (much to the disgust of the kids).

This 42nd Street Moon version goes back to the original (with a re-write assist by playwright John Guare, who spiffed it up for New York’s Encores! Series in 1999), so the preposterous plot is here in all its glory.

Director Dyan McBride knows just how to keep the action moving and the tone light so that the absurdity of the plot bumping up the richness of the songs isn’t quite as head-scratching as it might be. It’s already bizarre enough to have teenagers singing sophisticated, worldly songs like “Where or When” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” so McBride’s deft touch, with a choreographic lift fromZack Thomas Wilde, is welcome.

McBride’s cast is merry and bright, and they receive sturdy support from musical director Dave Dobrusky (who also has a cameo as Fiorello LaGuardia). Michael Scott Wells and Alexandra Kaprielian are front and center as (funny) Valentine and charming Billie, the gang leaders, as it were, and Zachary Franczak is enjoyably villainous as Southern bigot Beauregard Calhoun.

A weird highlight of an already weird show comes in Act 2 as one of the minor characters, Peter (played sweetly by Jonathan Shue), gets his own dream ballet. It involves $500, communism and a trip around the world, and it has to be seen to be believed. Kinda like the show itself.

Here’s the trailer for the 1939 Busby Berkeley spectacular that shares the name Babes in Arms a shred of the plot and only two of the songs (“Babes in Arms” and “Where or When”).


42nd Street Moon’s Babes in Arms continues through Dec. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.