Darren Criss as Hedwig (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Darren Criss as Hedwig (Photo by Joan Marcus)

"For the next ninety minutes, please do not curate the present or fetishize your past because you are afraid of having no future. Be here now." invokes Yitzhak (Lena Hall) – a funny, painfully honest take on the usual turn off your cellphones and photography isn't permitted message that comes before the curtain rises on a show, but also a telling warning for us and the characters in the play we're about to witness.

Then, lights flash, fog fills the stage, and Hedwig, played by Darren Criss, enters –a vision in a blonde wig, high-heeled gold boots, and denim short-shorts. It's clear from these opening moments that we are in for a wild ride.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," now playing at the Hollywood Pantages, is an unusual Broadway musical. In that, it's not so much a musical as a rock show interspersed with monologues filled with humor, pathos, and jokes that riff on everything from the state of Los Angeles theatre to election antics. Hedwig tells us the story of how she got to us here tonight – from the botched sex-change operation that left her with an "angry inch" so she could escape East Berlin to the failed romances behind her songs.

There is no intermission – just ninety minutes of no holds barred rock music, fabulous drag costumes and wigs, and a gradual stripping down to Hedwig's most vulnerable self. In this touring production, led by Darren Criss, who played the role for twelve weeks on Broadway and co-starring Lena Hall, who won a 2014 Tony in her role, we hurtle toward the conclusion with no chance to pump the brakes.

Simply put, the show is fantastic. Criss has made a career playing clean-cut guys with a boyish charm, like his breakout role as Blaine Anderson on "Glee." His sterling takes on pop hits like "Teenage Dream" and covers of Disney songs have demonstrated his winning vocal abilities. With Hedwig, Criss kicks through that strait-laced image with all the power his high-heeled gold boots will allow. He shows impressive range – moving from the ballad storytelling of "The Origin of Love" to the raunchy antics of "Sugar Daddy" to the bouncy pop of "Wig in a Box" to the vulnerable ache at the heart of "Wicked Little Town." He kicks, climbs, and sashays his way around the stage, jumping into the audience to gyrate on top of guests.

Watching Criss in the role is like watching a live hurricane take the stage – unstoppable and full of power. He commands your attention from the word go. One minute making you gasp with laughter at a joke unsuitable for print, the next breaking your heart with a tale about a search for love and acceptance. Criss reaches down into new depths to expose Hedwig's soul to us, and it pays off in spades. He is, in a word, mesmerizing – sexy, raunchy, raw, and utterly thrilling to watch.

Lena Hall as Yitzhak (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Lena Hall as Yitzhak (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Lena Hall proves a superb foil to Criss, matching his frenetic energy with stillness as Yitzhak, Hedwig's "husband" and backup singer. When she takes center stage on songs like "The Long Grift" and "Exquisite Corpse," her voice is captivating – little movement happens onstage, but our eyes are locked on her and her command of her instrument. She, too, has remarkable range jumping from the gruff tones of Yitzhak to snippets of an astounding rendition of "I Will Always Love You," meant to be coming from a radio. Yitzhak experiences a parallel journey to Hedwig, pushing up against the suffocation of repression to unleash and love his inner self.

One of the other delights of the show is its capacity for audience interaction and jokes tailored to the space. "Hedwig" has always been known for its cheeky sense of humor, and this production is no exception. Vincent Rodriguez III, who plays Josh Chan on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" was in the audience, and Hedwig shouted "Welcome to West Covina!" Riffing on our society's adoption of terms, Hedwig also welcomed us to the Pantages, which he noted was formerly the Homo and the Metro-tages. Pantages specific jokes were plentiful, with Hedwig riffing on the history of the Academy Awards there and taking swipes at the denizens of Hollywood Boulevard.

Perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening came from election humor. Hedwig riffs on a former lover's tendency to pop tic-tacs and kiss her without warning – when this was met with uproarious laughter, he responds by saying, "Don't listen to me. I'm such a nasty woman," which garnered even louder gasps of hilarity from the audience. For a show about a gender-queer rock-star, it still is continually reinventing itself and capitalizing on new ways to push the envelope.

Special credit must also be given to the design team. Julian Crouch's scenic design provides the perfect space for Hedwig to play in and paint the audience stories on, most particularly in a delicately handled bit of scrim and projection design on "The Origin of Love." Such design could easily overwhelm an actor, but here it complements the storytelling of the song to perfection. The wigs and costumes from Mike Potter and Arianne Phillips respectively are also divine – outlandish creations that still bear the rough edges that give us a glimpse at the raw wound at the heart of Hedwig. And it must be noted, their ability to create pieces that enable whiz-bang costume changes right on stage is jaw-dropping.

Darren Criss as Hedwig (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Darren Criss as Hedwig (Photo by Joan Marcus)

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a lot of things – a showcase for its two immensely talented leads, a hell of a good time, and ultimately, a meditation on acceptance, self-love, and what it means to be complete – a reminder that we can't really love until we first learn to wholly love ourselves. Rock concerts can amp you up and send you out into the night on a cloud of glitter and good vibes – it takes putting one into a Broadway musical to make it an experience that also makes you take stock and perhaps be kinder to those around you, and above all, yourself.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" runs through November 27th at the Hollywood Pantages (6233 Hollywood Blvd.). Tickets start at $35. For more information, visit www.hollywoodpantages.com

To contact Arts and Culture Associate Editor Maureen Lee Lenker, email maureenlee08@gmail.com.

Correction: This article previously stated that Darren Criss appeared in a five-week run of "Hedwig" on Broadway. He appeared for 12 weeks.