We’re pleased to offer this post from longtime friend of LGM Katie Surrence. I have been impressed by her views of the legitimate thee-yater since she saw through the ludicrously overrated Spring Awakening, and she writes interestingly about many other topics as well. Give her a a nice LGM welcome and hopefully we will see her work again! –SL
I’d like to introduce myself: I’m a friend of Scott L.’s from past blogging-related program activities. He reads my informal Facebook accounts of the plays I see in NYC, where I live, and he invited me to write some guest posts for LGM about theater, and possibly other things that occur to me (I work in psychology/neuroscience and might be tempted to cover that beat). I was both flattered and nervous—I don’t have the kind of formal education that would qualify me to write about theater the way SEK does for film and television. But I was also excited about the opportunity to explore my values about what makes good theater, and when I see a show I love, to be able to have a small part in promoting it. Some warnings: I obviously can’t cover theater around the country! But even if you don’t live in NYC, I hope it might be interesting to read about shows that might have touring productions or what you might want to see if you visit. I’m going to have a strong bias toward musicals, because that’s what I best love to go see. I won’t be able to be opening-night timely; I’m a time- and cash-poor student/researcher and sometimes don’t see shows till far into their run.
I at least have a news hook for my first review! Hedwig and the Angry Inch just won a bunch of Tonys, and Neil Patrick Harris took home Best Actor in a Musical. I never saw the original Hedwig on stage, but I’m a fan of the movie, and in many ways it was hard to avoid having a good time. I saw a 10 pm Saturday show, dressed up in a very short poofy pink dress and very tall pink heels and mouthed all the words with a crowd that also eating it up just as much. Someone—I guess John Cameron Mitchell? He has the only credit for the book—wrote updated patter for Hedwig that in my abundant goodwill for the show I laughed at even as I recognized how cheap it was (Hedwig is playing at the Belasco Theater after the close of the ill-fated run of Hurt Locker: The Musical). I wished many times that we were at a concert instead of a theater performance so I could move around, dance, even sometimes sing along.
But the fact that I would really rather have been dancing around and interacting more with the people around me rather than watching the show very closely is also a sign of what was wrong with the show. I’m a dissenter on the merits of Neil Patrick Harris’s performance. John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig shows you how she’s suffered. He plays depressed convincingly, sympathetically, and charismatically even while singing an uptempo rock song like “Wig in a Box”. And he gives her intelligence and irony, warmth and creative spark that she wouldn’t let be trapped behind the wall of sadness—you can see it breaking out over the course of the song. NPH’s Hedwig doesn’t let you see that she’s suffered at all. It’s a common remark about the Hedwig revival that it was originally a cabaret show, and it’s better designed for small venues, but I don’t think that was the only problem. A great stage performer should be able to make a huge theater into an intimate space. But NPH doesn’t give the audience pain or soul. His Hedwig is cold underneath a heavy mask of makeup. She’s funny and campy, but she never seems vulnerable. Hedwig abuses her bandmate and husband, Yitzhak (played in the revival by Lena Hall), and in the absence of a sense of her vulnerability, she just comes off as a bully. JCM is sexy as Hedwig, partly as a result of that intelligence and vulnerability, partly physical grace, and partly delicate oddball beauty. NPH didn’t have any real heat; his glam femme was a little stiff and awkward. I wondered if that was a deliberate choice, but if so I don’t think I liked it. I like Hedwig as brilliant in her role. He even looked wrong. He’s too cut to play Hedwig, who was presumably was not spending hours in the gym during her supermarket checkout/rocker-in-training years. That let him climb and leap impressively about the stage, but it was also yet another way he couldn’t bring vulnerability to the character. Lena Hall was a bright spot in the show, and in spite of having 10% of NPH’s time in the spotlight, she had more charisma and feeling. I did get a little piece of feeling from him at the very end, when he strips to his underwear, sheds his wig, and walks downstage, no longer stomping about, now supple in his movements, bending his body like a reed, singing, “You’re shining/Like the brightest star/A transmission/On the midnight radio.” But it wasn’t one of those shows that sneaks up on you at the end. It wasn’t enough for me to make her a character I cared about.
This video of NPH performing “Sugar Daddy” at the Tonys illustrates all the problems I saw. Of course this particular example is a little unfair: “Sugar Daddy” is supposed to be a big, silly, sexy number, but it’s what there is in video, and I still think it’s telling that even with the intimacy of close-ups, NPH is basically expressionless, athletic but awkward, pushing himself a little robotically through a routine: I must give lapdance … to Sting! The casting of Andrew Rannells has just been announced for the extended run. Maybe he’ll bring some heart back to the role.