Live Active Cultures: Neil Patrick Harris nails Hedwig on Broadway 

Plus ‘Jersey Boys’ in Orlando and four things DPAC must do to stay competitive

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY

A belated happy Easter, Passover and/or Spring Equinox to all my religious readers! Despite this year’s tragic shortage of homemade gefilte fish (thank you, global climate change) I celebrated Pesach as Jews have for thousands of years: by seeing Broadway shows. And what better way to honor the Exodus than seeing a pair of plays about escaping the scariest spots on Earth since Ancient Egypt: East Berlin … and New Jersey.

Fifteen years ago, I stumbled unprepared into a little-noticed new show that my friend was assistant stage-managing at lower Manhattan’s tiny Jane Street Theater. The gritty glam-punk epic that unfolded blew my boots off, and before long rock deities like David Bowie and Lou Reed were flocking downtown to see John Cameron Mitchell’s “internationally ignored song stylist” with a “1-inch mound of flesh where [her] penis used to be.” I returned to Orlando with a copy of the script and CD and tried in vain to convince a local theater to present Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it was roundly rejected as too extreme. Years later, actor David Lee put his stamp on the role with popular productions at the Parliament House and Fringe Festival, followed more recently by Joshua Eads-Brown and Brian Thompson. But with all due respect to those fine performances, I have a new second-favorite Hedwig (after that groundbreaking original) in Neil Patrick Harris’ balls-to-the-wall Broadway outing. Approaching a pre-opening preview of Hedwig’s big-budget New York return, I was apprehensive about how this intimate script would translate to a legit stage like the Belasco (where Tim Curry once starred as Frank N. Furter, Hedwig’s spiritual ancestor), but director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) made the transition seamless. An expanded opening monologue explains how Hedwig ended up on the set of the short-lived Hurt Locker: The Musical (complete with a hilarious fake Playbill and “love theme” excerpt from the fictitious flop).

Stephen Trask’s searing score has lost none of its power, and the few tweaks (“Sugar Daddy” reorchestrated as power pop instead of campy country) are for the better. TV and film triple threat NPH pushes the comedy in the first half, but makes a dramatic turn toward the dark at “Wicked Little Town,” turning in a gut-wrenchingly raw performance that builds until his ecstatic exit. I’ll never recapture that initial SoHo exposure to the show, but seeing Doogie Howser smash tomatoes on his bare chest was the next best thing.

Barely 36 hours after I landed back in the Sunshine State, I returned to the Garden State via the stage. The trailer for director Clint Eastwood’s upcoming cinematic take on Jersey Boys looks solid, but it’s hard to imagine any film having the dramatic theatrical impact of Des McAnuff’s 2006 Tony-winning musical, whose tour is back at Bob Carr through this weekend for another welcome bow. There isn’t much more to say about this stellar show – which is still going strong in New York and Las Vegas, and internationally – that I didn’t cover in my 2009 review; the classic music and fascinating biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is as compelling as ever. The play isn’t perfect – the French hip-hop prologue has dated badly, and the act break is still awkward – but it’s as close as you’ll find in this age of cash-grab jukebox musicals and movie remakes.

In the current tour, Hayden Milanes re-creates Frankie’s famous falsetto and fluid dance moves to a T, and Adam Zelasko nails Nick Massi’s humorous pathos as the group’s “Ringo.” Nicolas Dromard lays on the “old neighborhood” schtick a little thick as Tommy DeVito, but the chatty Jersey ex-pats sitting next to me loudly approved of his patois, and Quinn VanAntwerp’s fresh-faced Bob Gaudio is guileless enough to be an extra in Book of Mormon. If you remember the original tour, you may notice how some formerly realistic moments have become slightly stylized and once-sharp choreography is now slightly sloppy, as happens in long-running shows. But McAnuff’s seamlessly flowing staging, supported by Michael Clark’s pop-art projections, remains among the best I’ve ever seen.

In addition to Jersey Boys, Orlando’s upcoming Fairwinds Broadway Across America season is stocked with shows that are still hot tickets in NYC, like Book of Mormon, Newsies, Motown and Pippin. But if the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts truly wants to bring a taste of Times Square to Central Florida, here are four things its public plaza must have: 1) student rush lotteries for cut-rate tickets before every performance; 2) a TKTS-style booth selling two-for-one same-day seats for any theater across town, including Shakes and Mad Cow; 3) pushcart vendors selling dirty-water dogs, hot pretzels, halal kebabs and other cheap eats; and 4) busker entertainment at all hours, with no blue boxes, pricey permits or censorious curation – just ban the scary off-brand Elmo impersonators!

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