HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is making a two-week stop at the Oriental Theatre, courtesy of Broadway in Chicago. For cult fans of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 musical, this could be a joyful reunion. For lovers of rock concert spectacle, the revival directed by Michael Mayer is likely to thrill them. For those attending as part of their subscription series, it might be perplexing. Or, as one young woman told another as they exited, “Well…it was different.” Finally, for those of us who first met genderqueer Hedwig years ago in a gritty, intimate bar-turned-performance space, it’s a struggle to find the heart.
Obviously, it’s going to feel very different on a Broadway scale. But Hedwig’s journey from a “slip of a girlyboy” in East Berlin to an “internationally ignored” rock band leader is one of tremendous feeling. And now those feelings have to compete with such stage wizardry as blinding strobe lights, automated aerial wig stands and simulated oral sex with a front-row audience member (who, for the record, took the joke in good-natured stride).
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’s compelling story
“I have a great number of appointments,” announces Hedwig, dynamically portrayed by Euan Morton. “And a greater number of disappointments.” Witty and concise, the lines speak to the character’s relentless quest for completeness.
Hansel, born when the Berlin Wall was built (1961), lives a politically and sexually repressed existence. An American soldier falls in love with the young man and proposes escape through marriage. Hansel’s mother donates her name and her passport – plus a doctor’s phone number for a sex-change operation. The procedure is a botch, leaving behind the titular angry inch and a female-identified person named Hedwig.
The marriage is also a botch, and Hedwig lands broke and abandoned in Junction City, Kansas. Surviving on various jobs, including blow, she launches a rock music career in glorious drag. When Hedwig meets a military officer’s son, Tommy, she declares the 17-year-old not only her true love but her completion as well. Another botch. Taking her training and lyrics, Tommy ditches her and goes on to music stardom. Hedwig then forms the Angry Inch Band and acquires a husband, Yitzhak (Hannah Corneau), with whom she exchanges snipes.
Broadway version makes connection difficult
This production tends to make authentic connection difficult for those of us who trust the power of the story. For example, Hedwig’s song based on Aristophanes’ contemplation of gender, “Origins of Love,” is accompanied by animated graphics projected onto a scrim. They are nothing short of fabulous but the technical extravaganza makes it harder to focus on Hedwig’s yearning for love.
Also disrupted is the show’s encapsulation of time and place. Facing a hopeless future in 1988, Hedwig undergoes sex-reassignment as the only way out. A year later, the Berlin Wall has fallen and her bungled surgical sacrifice is now an unnecessary tragedy.
The revival’s updated cultural references are certainly entertaining. An immigration policy dig – “There are no sides when one has no Green Card” – sparks applause and a mention of gender-neutral bathrooms evokes laughter. But all of this takes us out of the dire East-West divide in the waning days of the Cold War.
For some, this vision of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH will be exciting. For others, it leads to a sense of incompleteness.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Now through March 19
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.