The Tony Award-winning 2014 Broadway revival of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has finally hit Chicago. But don't be surprised if you overhear the occasional Oriental Theatre audience member boasting about previously seeing "so-and-so" celebrity in this famed gender-bending rock musical during its hit Broadway run in New York.
Despite all the critical acclaim and cult fandom that greeted both its 1998 off-Broadway stage debut and its 2001 indie-film version, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" probably would never have hit Broadway if it didn't have a big celebrity attached. But that's exactly what happened when "How I Met Your Mother" star Neil Patrick Harris became the first of many TV stars like Michael C. Hall ("Dexter"), Darren Criss ("Glee") and Taye Diggs ("Private Practice") to take on Hedwig on Broadway.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadway inchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Sunday, March 12); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesday, March 15); through March 19
Running time: About 105 minutes without intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered parking
Rating: For mature audiences only: profanity, frank sexual talk and gestures
Criss reprised "Hedwig" in San Francisco and Los Angeles to launch the 2016 tour. But for the main city-to-city grind, it's Scottish Broadway veteran Euan Morton ("Taboo," "Sondheim on Sondheim") donning the title glam rock drag of "the internationally ignored song stylist."
Rather than be disappointed by the lack of a name-brand celebrity, Chicago audiences should actually see this as a plus to get more easily lost in the show's truly touching story. And boy, is Hedwig's tale a tabloid-ready and adults-only doozy involving rock 'n' roll, drugs and a botched East German sex change operation.
Deploying a powerhouse voice and coy comic timing, Morton's Hedwig is an embittered artiste on a mission to reclaim the rock-star fame that was stolen away from her. Sure, Hedwig is snide and rude -- especially to her often-defiant Balkan husband Yitzhak (strong-voiced former Chicago actress Hannah Corneau) and her backing rock band known as the "Angry Inch" (actually the show's original Broadway musicians Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz).
Yet underneath all of Hedwig's overconfident scowling and unapologetic sexuality is a hurt and tender soul who has been cruelly battered around by life. Morton adeptly navigates all of Hedwig's emotions while also donning amazing rock star drag outfits dreamed up by costume designer Arianne Phillips (there's also an array of evermore outrageous wigs and makeup by designer Mike Potter).
Playwright John Cameron Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask have cleverly updated "Hedwig" to suit the times. For instance, the song "Sugar Daddy" is less countrified, while there are even a few raised eyebrows at the Trump administration's immigration crackdown.
"Hedwig" also plays particularly well at the Oriental Theatre thanks to so many dropped-in localized references. In particular, Chicago's status as a major city for world premiere musicals heading to Broadway gets a huge laugh. That's because Hedwig and crew have taken over designer Julian Crouch's discarded grungy set for the flop show "Hurt Locker: The Musical" (try to snag a spoof playbill off the ground).
But there's no doubt that director Michael Mayer's flashy Broadway production of "Hedwig" has been thoroughly customized and aggrandized to play major theaters across the country. Kevin Adams' often-blinding Tony Award-winning lighting design could make you feel like you're tripping out at a rock concert, as do the precise (and sometimes disturbing) animated projections dreamed up by designer Benjamin Pearcy for the company 59 Productions.
Now "Hedwig" may be too outrageous and in-your-face for certain audiences (there were a few walkouts at the originally designated press opening). The blaring sound design of Tim O'Heir also often leaves many lyrics indecipherable.
But it's likely that you'll never see a production of "Hedwig" produced with such grandiose gusto as the current tour at the Oriental Theatre. Though it started off in a small off-Broadway theater, "Hedwig" proves it can confidently throw its music and storytelling weight around a big Broadway stage.