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First Nighter: Neil Patrick Harris Ratchets Up Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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It's not your father's Doogie Howser, and while we're at it, it's not your older sister's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, either. What we're talking about is Neil Patrick Harris -- only just released from How I Met Your Mother -- talking on the (partial) title role in Michael Mayer's revised and extravagantly enhanced production, at the Belasco, of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's 1998 hard-rock, first-ever-and-still-only tranny musical.

This is the one where -- fronting the four-man Angry Inch band, with additional contributions by cross-dressing Yitzhak (Lena Hall) -- Hedwig tells her life story as the trans-gender East German bride and eventual divorcée of a soldier returning to the states.

Describing her surgery graphically enough (the angry inch is what remains of her former manhood), she raves on about her impoverished travels before she realized she could apply her writing and performing talents to the big concert stage. Along the way, she chats aggressively about how she molded a fellow named Tommy Speck into a hot music partner called Tommy Gnosis (from the Greek for "knowledge"), who then split from her.

The set-up for Hedwig's teasing, taunting and eventually transformative autobiographical outpouring is a one-night stint at the very Belasco Theatre where the audience has gathered. To add to the humor of the frequently scatological occasion, Hedwig and band (Justin Craig as Skszp, Matt Duncan as Jacek, Tim Mislock as Krzyzhtoff, Peter Yanowitz as Schlatko) are appearing on the night after the (fictional) tuner Hurt Locker with its Tony Kushner-Brandon Nipp libretto called it quits following a single performance.

The Belasco-Hurt Locker metatheatrical references are hallmarks of the amused tweakings in which Mitchell has indulged himself. (No program credit indicates others are involved.) But the original Hedwig and the Angry Inch intention's remains the same: to examine the anger and anguish often experienced in an individual's acceptance of who he or she is.

Watching Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I remembered a talk I once had with a former transvestite who explained that when he'd first got himself up in women's clothes, he felt liberated. In time, however, what had made him feel free came to be imprisoning. At that point dropping the affectations became the freeing action.

By no means am I suggesting that this is true of all cross-dressers, but it definitely comes across as the progression Hedwig makes during the 95 minutes she's flouncing, flirting and flailing on stage. And the effect is strengthened by what Hedwig, who calls herself "a Commie from East Berlin," has demanded of the forlorn Yitzhak until the final heavy-metal chords introduce another transformation.

As the radically bewigged centerpiece, Harris gives the kind of spectacular turn he's only hinted he's capable of in appearances like his Tony-night host numbers and as Bobby in the Lincoln Center version of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth Company.

Lowered in from the fly in the first of Arianne Phillips's intricate and exuberant pull-away costumes, Harris begins his no-holds-barred drag-queen carryings-on. He immediately tears into songwriter Stephen Trask's opening "Tear Me Down" and does it as if playing the largest stadium in the country.

From then on, he seduces the audience as he talks and belts and looks to be about seven feet tall. The gold boots and Mike Potter's hair confections help the illusion invaluably. (Speaking of Potter and designers like him, when will the Tonys recognize people in this line of work?) Harris digs into Hedwig's resentments, in part by having him regularly open an upstage door to listen in on what's evidently a nearby concert Tommy Gnosis is giving.

While stripping costume after costume and wig after wig (at one juncture a grid of wigs on headstands descends), Harris also does the psychological stripping Mitchell's script calls for. By fadeout, the actor has given an indelible portrayal of someone mustering the courage not only to drop his gaudy garments but to drop his guard as well.

Though Harris is the focal figure, everyone involved in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is doing outstanding work. Longtime fans are already aware of Stephen Trask's sizzling score. As played by this gritty and grinding band, it's as fresh and vital and as rafters-ringing as it's ever been.

Listening to it now, I had the impression that it sounds not unlike vintage Beatles material -- which isn't to say that it's in any way dated. Whether they're blasted or balladeered, there's not a dud among the songs, although I'm especially partial to "Hedwig's Lament." This'll be some first-rate, top-drawer original cast CD.

The incomparable Julian Crouch designed the set, which is a hoot and a half by itself. At the top of the show, Hedwig identifies his surroundings as the ill-fated Hurt Locker set, which that production's purveyors have allowed him to use before it's torn down.

That explains the upstage abandoned car and the parts of another car suspended from the fly, as if they're the remains of an exploded John Chamberlain sculpture. It also explains the left stage and right stage flats of bombarded buildings that Hedwig eventually shoves aside.

It won't take long for partisans of Hedwig and the Angry from its off-Broadway Jane Hotel origins in the West Village to notice that money is spent here that was never available there. Not to mention space. Just consider what's done to accompany "The Origin of Love." As it gets underway, a scrim lowers on which a hypnotic animated cartoon is projected. Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions is behind it. (And when will the Tonys recognize the more and more prominent projection designers?)

"I do love a good scrim job," Hedwig quips with a near wink at the end of the sequence.

Shaping all this, Mayer does his usual skillful work. He takes on Hedwig and the Angry Inch after putting Spring Awakening and American Idiot on their feet -- and on their feat. It's tempting to say -- and I'm giving in to the temptation -- that with his third obvious click, he's made himself our foremost director of rock musicals. Over the last several decades, too many of the so-called rock musicals have merely been ersatz. Mayer is expert at the real thing.

The closing number "Midnight Radio" exhorts everyone to "lift up your hands." Not only will many Hedwig and the Angry Inch audience members lift up their hands, they'll eagerly and happily put then together for sustained applause.