Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH"

text by John Cameron Mitchell

music and lyrics by Stephen Trask

directed and choreographed by Michael Messer

Hedwig / Tommy Gnosis…..Gene Dante
Yitzhak…..Lisa Boucher

THE ANGRY INCH:
Skszp, guitar…..Eric Beauchemin
Schlatko, drums…..Matt Bogdanow
Jacek, bass…..Izzy Maxwell
Krzyzhtoff, guitar…..Paul Phillips
Hugo, keyboards, Musical Director…..David Nehls

This year I have seen three musicals that have shown me that this distinctly American genre is far from dead and in its grave despite the many blind alleys it has gone down: THE WILD PARTY (SpeakEasy Stage Company), a brilliant recreation of Joseph Moncure March’s dark Jazz Age poem; MARTY (The Huntington Stage Company), which --- despite its flaws --- honorably attempts to revive the traditional book musical with tunes and dances; and, finally, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (The Institute of Contemporary Art Theatre), the most exciting, unique and successful of the three. These scribbles are a long-overdue postmortem (the ICA production departed on Halloween), but I come not to mourn but to celebrate, for I have at long last seen HEDWIG --- I didn’t think I would like it, but I did.

HEDWIG, of course, tells of Hedwig f/k/a Hansel, a “slip of a girly-boy” from Communist East Berlin who escapes to America after undergoing a bungled sex-change operation that leaves her with what she calls an “angry inch”. Abandoned in Kansas by her G. I. husband, Hedwig becomes a rock singer performing with her own band, The Angry Inch. She hooks up with a young guitarist whom she christens “Tommy Gnosis”, seeing him as her other half (in the show’s most haunting song, “The Origin of Love”, Hedwig sings via Aristotle that each of us is a severed half of an original whole and that we spend our lives looking for that missing half). Tommy also abandons Hedwig, taking her songs with him, and becomes a major rock star, leaving Hedwig --- a born survivor --- to go on living, singing and hopefully becoming a whole person on her own.

HEDWIG is akin to three other musicals I have seen this year: like ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE (Stoneham Theatre), HEDWIG is a life told in song and monologue. Like BATBOY: THE MUSICAL (SpeakEasy Stage Company), HEDWIG deals with a social misfit and is geared towards younger audiences. Like THE GIG (Lyric Stage), HEDWIG has a gimmick. HEDWIG is far superior to all three: ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE’s songs are Ms. Cline’s standards, which reveal little about the woman herself, while HEDWIG’s score is original, illuminating and can only be sung by Hedwig. Though I steadfastly refused to hug my BATBOY, I was genuinely touched by Hedwig’s tragicomic life --- the show’s biggest irony is that after being abandoned in Kansas and saddled with her “angry inch”, Hedwig watched the televised fall of the Berlin Wall shortly after her departure. Finally, THE GIG’s gimmick --- six actors miming playing instruments and singing the notes --- simply didn’t work (for me, anyway). HEDWIG’s gimmick is passing a musical off as a rock concert --- and it works brilliantly, both as a concert and as theatre, from its now-famous introduction, “Ladies and Gentlemen, whether you like it or not --- HEDWIG!” to the stirring finale, “Midnight Radio” (the millennium’s answer to “Let the Sunshine In”). Where I feel that the creators of BATBOY: THE MUSICAL and THE GIG are Broadway wannabes who know little about rock (BATBOY) or jazz (THE GIG), I came out of HEDWIG (slightly deafened) feeling that two distinctly different halves in the forms of John Cameron Mitchell (a Broadway singer-actor) and Stephen Trask (an authentic rocker) had become One and given birth to HEDWIG. Just as Mr. Mitchell (who wrote the monologues and was the original Hedwig) trained to become a convincing rock singer, Mr. Trask (whose own band --- “Cheater” --- was the original Angry Inch band) learned to dramatize his music without having it slip into camp or pastiche, drawing upon the New Wave/Pop/Punk sounds of the 1980’s. (To top it off, HEDWIG was first tested in a New York drag club for authenticity --- it passed through the fire to later become an off-Broadway sensation.) HEDWIG is a one-of-a-kind musical, like THE FANTASTICKS, that defies imitation and can only exist in a live performance --- the disappointing film version preserved Mr. Mitchell’s Hedwig at the expense of opening up the story line and showing everyone and everything that Hedwig so effectively talks about onstage).

Like Hamlet, the role of Hedwig is a multi-faceted character open to a number of interpretations. Judging by Mr. Mitchell’s film performance, I gather his onstage Hedwig was funny/poignant, no doubt drawing upon the actor’s slender frame. I was told when Michael Cerveris (from Broadway’s TOMMY) took over, his Hedwig was funny/tough --- which also worked. The ICA’s production boasted a warm, seductive Hedwig from Gene Dante --- streetwise, yet alluring (an alley cat Dietrich), with a powerhouse of a voice that sounded as fresh at curtain call as it did upon his first entrance, and he was golden in his sardonic yet gentle monologues (an acting lesson on How to Work an Audience). Mr. Dante’s performance made me realize how theatrical a successful rock concert really is --- its singers need to have a sense of the dramatic, a presence, and plenty of bravura to get their music across --- and having a trained singing voice like Mr. Dante’s doesn’t hurt, either. (Mr. Dante has his own website at www.genedante.com.)

Lisa Boucher made a droll, gnomish Yitzhak --- Hedwig’s second husband, co-singer, former drag queen and butt of Hedwig's jokes (the role is traditionally played by an actress not only for ironic contrast but for vocal balance); though small in stature, Ms. Boucher also boasted an impressive voice that could cut through anything that the Angry Inch dished out --- and there were some pretty thick walls of sound, let me tell you. (Should Hedwig ever be played by a woman --- and why not? --- Yitzhak would have to be played by a man; again, for the vocal balance.) The five-piece band were all accomplished rockers --- tinted and/or grungy --- and were actors enough to know when to make with the personality and when to recede into the Star’s shadow.

I pay director/choreographer Michael Messer the highest compliment of all: I was not aware of his presence --- his rock-concert illusion was solid as a brick. The tiny ICA auditorium was converted into a dark, seedy rathskeller to host this “internationally-ignored song stylist”, and the packed house was made up primarily of cheering college-age crowds who may not have believed me had I told them they were NOT watching a concert but, rather, a well-crafted imitation of one. And you would’ve noticed me all right --- I was the one with his forefingers sometimes embedded in his ears (a few of those numbers were LOUD, man!).

At curtain call, Mr. Dante graciously thanked everyone for coming and announced that his Hedwig might return to Beantown again. I’ll be there. I cannot say I have seen the future of the American musical for there’s nothing on earth like HEDWIG and she can only give birth to imitations, but I’ll be there and so should you --- and don’t forget your ear plugs.

Where you like it or not --- HEDWIG!

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (11-31 October)
THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART THEATRE
955 Boylston Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-5152

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