Theater Review: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 9, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


“I’m the new Berlin Wall. Try to tear me down!” That defiant dare marks the flaming arrival of Hedwig Schmidt, survivor-heroine of John Cameron Mitchell’s riveting 1998 rock opera, a work that inevitably honors the freak-show pizzazz of The Who’s Tommy and the free-spirited androgyny of the late David Bowie. Sort of fresh from an ongoing national tour and now playing Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, Michael Mayer’s pile-driving, funny/scary, 110-minute staging features newly cast Euan Morton in a role that’s usually so rich in ardor and ambiguity that a single viewing can barely tap it. That doesn’t quite happen here. But, no question, Mayer’s gorgeous rock-show recreation, featuring dazzling animation, projections, pyrotechnics, and a panoply of wigs, is as eye-popping as ear-breaking.

As “wide open” as her tabloid life, Hedwig performs with The Angry Inch, her four-person back-up band, and with Yitzak, her glum, current husband, a frustrated drag queen in his own wrong. The story that this “internationally ignored song stylist” tells—through Stephen Trask’s mostly terrific numbers—often threatens to scorch the stage. (Starring Mitchell, in 2001 it became a fine tribute to this very gay Billy Elliott in a feature film from New Line Cinema.) Formerly known as Hansel, this “slip of a girly boy” from East Berlin fell for a G.I. who preferred him female. A botched sex change left her with “an angry inch” of souvenir penis and a ticket to America. Now Hedwig is condemned to pretend to perform, backstage from her successful protégé, amid the abandoned remains of the imaginary flop Hurt Locker: The Musical. That fiasco closed at intermission, leaving its detonated detritus behind. The discarded programs from this deserved turkey are hilarious to read.

Abandoned by her soldier in a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas, Hedwig is drawn to Tommy Gnosis, a teen who yearning Hedwig believes is really her other self (as in Plato’s belief that lovers are separated at birth and must find each other to complete their coming). Thanks to Hedwig, Gnosis becomes a rock star—and never thanks her. Never mind. By the end genderqueer Hedwig has absorbed Gnosis and frees Yitzak to become his other self.

Morton blends Dame Edna with Lipsinka and Alice Cooper (not to mention Queen) with Boy George (a role he originated in Taboo) into one grimacingly flamboyant performer, yet his act of desperation isn’t spellbinding stuff. In a performance that ought to tower even over the wigs, the much-awarded and nominated Morton tries to tear into Hedwig’s meltdown. (I’ve seen previous Hedwigs, like Nick Garrison 16 years ago at Chicago’s Broadway Theatre, work the crowd into contagious bliss.) Alas, Morton’s German accent is often so impenetrable that many jokes became literal throwaway lines—but, happily, not her opening quip “I do love a warm hand on my entrance.” (I also love the line in the movie, “I’m famous for my big openings.”) Morton brings a ferocity and fierceness to the part that is less than Hedwig’s whole. Worse, it eclipses the vulnerable, needy narcissist that Mitchell perfectly preserved in the movie. (The tour opened with Glee‘s Darren Criss.)

Hannah Corneau, however, fares better as self-effacing Yitzhak whose final transformative rebirth echoes Hedwig’s wishful evolution into Tommy Gnosis. Passively partnering the gender-busting Morton, Corneau provides a kind of reality base from which the show delightfully departs. Unlike Hedwig’s self-made odyssey from Hansel Schmidt, Corneau’s “identity theft” of Hedwig’s damaged goods is resplendently successful. It’s just the unexpectedly happy ending that this dour anti-“coming of age” musical requires.

Though the lyrics suffer more from incomprehensibility than inaudibility, the irresistible score varies from the country-western verve of “Sugar Daddy” to the go-for-broke anguish of “Exquisite Corpse,” a primal ballad that ushers in the redemptive finale. The four Angry Inchers give the ten songs their due and more. What this Hedwig loses in intimacy, alas, it barely gains in glitz. But nothing is lost in the trans-lation.

photos by Joan Marcus

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
national tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre
ends on March 19, 2017
for tickets, call 800-982-2787
or visit visit Broadway in Chicago
tour continues through July 2, 2017
for cities and dates, visit Hedwig Tour

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