The Review: reTHEATER’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Anyone who has read my blog from the beginning knows that my love of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is timeless and without bounds, almost. I saw it about three (or maybe four) times when it played at the formerly rundown Jane Street Theatre back in the mid late 1990’s. It ran for two years starting in 1998 and won the Obie Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. I saw it with the original, the performer and writer John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig and Miriam Shor as Yitzhak, backed up by the composer and musical star Stephen Trask, who just happens to be helming another musical, This Ain’t No Disco at Atlantic Theatre this summer. And I can’t wait.
I had the pleasure of shooting Trask (I was a photographer back in the early late 1990’s) for the record label who was putting out the Hedwig Off-Broadway album, and I’m looking forward to hearing what else this lovely gentleman has inside him. The original production was directed by Peter Askin with musical staging by Jerry Mitchell starring the replacement Hedwigs du jour, Michael Cerveris, Donovan Leitch, Ally Sheedy, Kevin Cahoon, Asa Somers, and Matt McGrath one after the other. I know I saw Cerveris, my favorite of all, although I think I also saw Leitch and McGrath, and maybe the oddly wonderful Sheedy. But after Cerveris and Mitchell, my brain gets foggy when thinking back.
I do feel eternally blessed to have been able to say that I was there in that broken down theatre/SRO hotel off-Broadway back in the day, but also equally blessed to have seen Neil Patrick Harris star and win a Tony Award for his portrayal of Hedwig, the “internationally ignored song stylist” from the Eastern Block when he ‘graced’ the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 2014/15. The brilliant revival got the professional treatment it deserved by director Michael Mayer with musical staging by Spencer Liff, and the phenomenal (and Tony Award winning) Lena Hall as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. That wasn’t enough for me, it seemed, as I couldn’t help myself, returning once again to see John Cameron Mitchell strap on those heels (and a foot boot, due to an injury) and rock that show like the superstar he is. So I like the show, as you can see. Broadway wasn’t the perfect place for this widely unconventional show. It never really fit surrounded by that large theatrical proscenium needing a more rundown smaller stage to thrive on, and even with their best attempt to explain how this little show could find itself on Broadway, it was an oddly marriage. I accepted the explanation reluctantly and knowingly, lapping up the gloriousness that is Hedwig while happily ignoring the disconnect of place and person.
So it didn’t take much pressure or nagging when the press representatives for RuPaul’s Drag Race Star, Mimi Imfurst (Braden Chapman) and the 20th Anniversery production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch by reTHEATER came a-calling, trying to convince me to head to to Philadelphia’s RUBA Club for one more dose. So there I was, drinking a bourbon and coke at the 4th wall-smashing, gender-bending rock musical when it started performances with a roar on June 1st at a former Russian Social Club. This slightly pseudo-run down bar/cabaret space is definitely the perfect and far more suitable venue to house this earth-shattering rock show with this powerfully electric drag queen as its star. It’s a cult pop-culture phenomenon, and as performed with glitter and edge by the fantastic Chapman, with the role of Yitzhak alternatively being performed by
Sav Souza and Stephanie C. Kernisan (I saw the phenomenal Kernisan the night I went), it pulled me right back into its powerfully immersive world with a vengeance.
The production, directed with a drag queen relevance by Josh Hitchens (Quince Productions’ The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later) with production design and co-direction by Braden Chapman, set design by Scott McMaster, lighting Design by Ken Jordan and costumes/music direction by Bobby Goodrich finds its footing most solidly on that cluttered stage. The singing is electric, and the look is solid and very Hedwig chic, although the wigs could use an upgrade and some more solid choreography in getting them on and off. The sound isn’t as esthetically solid as I had hoped. It ricochets about the room, unbalanced and erratic, but the heartbreaking and wickedly funny piece shines through the haze, even when the lyrics are hard to made out. My companion that night thought it had to do with the Chapman’s microphone and its use not working well with his powerful voice, and I sort of agree, but I think the microphones were not well balanced with each other either, leaning focus over to the more clearer voiced Yitzhak than the mighty Hedwig’s growl.
Utilizing every inch of that incredible score and hilariously heartfelt book, the production displays a well thought out updated formulation of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s explosive rock musical with a glittery and blue shaded eye on relevance and wit. It’s strength, as always, is the balance, finding the cleverness while never losing the essence of the emotional story and the music emeshed within. The Angry Inch band is brought to wailing life by the talented team of Bobby Goodrich, Paul Severe Harlan, Robert Covello, and Tucker Marhsall, raising the roof and the level of engagement to the rafters. This landmark and groundbreaking musical is definitely deserving of this rock ‘n’ roll incarnation, and worth another listen to as Hedwig tells her journey from an Eastern Berlin stove sound amplifier to a trailer park in Kansas. Chapman has released the music for downloading, and I’m curious to hear it as recorded in a studio. It’s the brilliant story about searching for your other half, and finding self acceptance and connection in the end. It’s worth the ride to Philadelphia, even with the unevenness of the sound getting in the way of the fury from time to time. No one can tear her down.