Taye Diggs and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
I was fortunate enough to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch three times in 2015. The first time was with John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig and Lena Hall as Yitzhak. The second was with Taye Diggs and Rebecca Naomi Jones, and the third was Diggs and Jones’ understudy, Shannon Conley.
Shortly after seeing Diggs a second time, I went to see Fun Home. Before the show started, I overheard a couple behind me saying some really nasty things about Diggs in Hedwig. Had they actually seen the show? No, but they had heard he was miscast.
Was this an anomaly, or was Diggs really getting bad reviews? When I got home after the show, I looked up reviews since Diggs took over, and there couldn’t be a wider difference between the critics and the fan reactions. Was Diggs my favorite Hedwig? No, that honor rests firmly with the original Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell, but Diggs brought something new to the role and not only the fact that he is black.
Physically, Diggs is bigger and bulkier than the previous Hedwigs. He is almost busting out of that denim mini-skirt, and even though he’s a good dancer, he doesn’t move like Neil Patrick Harris or Andrew Rannells. Unlike some previous Hedwigs, he is very unlikely to pass as a cis-gender woman. Also, audiences seemed much less comfortable with jokes about Hitler and prostitution coming from a black, obviously queer person. It was more challenging for Broadway patrons to hear them from Diggs than someone like Mitchell, and when a show pushes audiences to examine their own prejudices regarding race and gender non-conforming people, I see that as a win.
Besides all of that, Taye Diggs had my all-time favorite rendition of “Wicked Little Town.” Oh my goodness. I wish there was another cast recording with Diggs just so I could have a copy of his “Wicked Little Town.”
For all the talk about Diggs being the first black Hedwig, Rebecca Naomi Jones’ performance as Yitzhak was a bit overlooked, which is a shame. I adored her when I saw her in American Idiot, and I was thrilled when I heard she would be taking over the role after Lena Hall left. Jones had big shoes to fill. Hall won the Tony for playing Yitzhak, a win that was well deserved. Yitzhak doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in the show, but Hall didn’t need it. To put it mildly, her face is expressive, and her voice is tremendous. (Seriously, it is amazing to hear her sing in-person. Google her performance of “Sober” at Broadway Sings Pink.) I hoped that Jones would be up for the challenge while also bringing something new to the role, which she did beautifully.
Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s musical Next to Normal is one of my all-time favorite shows. Their follow-up project, If/Then, was not as critically successful, and in my opinion, the show was uneven. The choreography didn’t mesh with the rest of the show, and while I was able to follow Elizabeth’s dual timelines, I can see how it could be confusing for audiences.
That being said, I thought If/Then didn’t get enough credit for its merits. The show wasn’t based on a book or movie, and it didn’t feature pre-existing pop music like Motown the Musical or Mamma Mia. They had the name recognition of Idina Menzel in her post-Frozen high, but at the same time, it wasn’t meant for families and definitely wasn’t accessible for younger audiences. On that basis alone, If/Then was a risk, and I give the show’s creators for taking risks in their work.
One of the show’s strongest parts, though, was the cast. Menzel was the face of the show, and as the music was written to suit her voice and the story was very loosely based on her recent divorce from Taye Diggs, the part was a perfect fit for her. Her co-stars’ contributions, however, should not be overlooked. LaChanze has a stunning voice, and the show gave her lots of solo moments and a substantial romantic subplot with Jenn Colella. James Snyder was very charming as Josh, and Anthony Rapp played Menzel’s friend-with-a-crush Lucas without simply replaying his character Mark in Rent. Also, I was surprised that Jason Tam didn’t get more praise as David, Lucas’ romantic interest in one of the timelines. He had good chemistry with Rapp, and his second act solo “What Would You Do?” was genuinely moving.
If/Then also has some of my favorite new Broadway songs of the 2010s. “You Don’t Need To Love Me,” “Hey, Kid,” “It’s a Sign,” “Love While You Can,” and of course, Menzel’s emotional gut-punch “Always Starting Over.”
Idina Menzel and “Always Starting Over” is a perfect match of performer with song, and despite its problems, seeing If/Then before it closed was a theatre highlight of 2015.
The Upper Room at the New Ohio Theatre
The Upper Room is responsible for the most contentious post-theatre debate I had all year, possibly ever. My reaction and my husband’s reaction to this show could not have been more different, and most of our conversation was about, surprisingly, manatees. More specifically, a cult of crunchy-granola hippies who transform into manatees.
Of course, the manatees and transformation are metaphorical. They mean something in the larger context of the show. (Really, they do.) But on its face, it is really, really weird, and it is easily 2015’s Best WTF Moment in theatre.