'How does a slip of a girly-boy from Communist East Berlin become an internationally ignored song stylist?"
This is the burning -- or at least heavily winking -- question asked and answered in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the Off-Broadway glam-rock comic musical that was a late '90s sensation in a seedy theater on Manhattan's far, far West Side.
Today's more pressing questions, however, include what's this legendarily subversive little extravaganza involving a botched sex-change operation doing on Broadway and, best of all, how's Neil Patrick Harris doing in high-heel ankle boots, glitter lipstick and a Farrah Fawcett wig the size of an old Buick?
The pertinent answers are that the unlikely Broadway show and its equally unlikely star are doing splendidly. Harris, who has triumphed in serious musicals, light TV, and award-show hosting, may not be the strongest rock howler who ever sang Stephen Trask's thrashing, unpredictably touching songs. Nor is Harris, 40, the most effortless dancer to ever climb into the torn fishnets of John Cameron Mitchell's Obie-winning, transgender diva of a show.
But he is extraordinarily lithe and buff, irresistibly endearing and way beyond merely game as Hedwig, who takes us on his journey of self-discovery in the guise of an autobiographical concert. The story begins with an unhappy childhood (and affection for gummy bears) in divided Berlin, moves to misery in a Kansas trailer park and endures an unhappy affair with a boy who turns into a big rock star. Director Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening," "American Idiot") has cleverly moved Hedwig's show to a Broadway theater -- right near the crowds cheering that former boyfriend in Times Square.
This gives Harris-as-Hedwig the chance to lick the ground "where Brando once walked." He also grinds his hips on almost everything on Julian Crouch's bombed-out treasure of a set that also holds the dark-edged theatrics of the onstage band and Yitzhak (the terrific Lena Hall), the Bosnian-Jewish former drag queen.
Mitchell's book has been updated a bit, so be prepared for a few tasteless asides and contemporary name-dropping. As a brighter new idea, the theater is littered with hilarious fake Playbills from what Hedwig claims was the theater's former flop, "Hurt Locker: the Musical."
As Hedwig learns from that unfortunate surgery -- which left that angry inch -- "to be free you must give up a little part of yourself." On Broadway, Hedwig's lifelong search for the other half of his/her divided self seems right at home.
WHAT "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
INFO $49-$154; 212-239-6200; hedwigbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Harris triumphs as transgender rocker in subversive little musical extravaganza.