When John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) were developing their gender-bending rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch for its Off-Broadway premiere in 1998, the Berlin Wall had only recently come down (November 1989), David Bowie and Lou Reed, icons of the glam and punk rock music of the ‘70s, were still very much alive, and marriage equality was still a dream (The Netherlands was the first country to enact a law recognizing same-sex marriage in 2001). With the current national tour of the show, which began in 2016, following its Tony Award-winning Broadway revival in 2014, the avant-garde original has now become a significant piece of living history, with a timeless human message about the search for love and acceptance. Presented collaboratively by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and The Shubert Organization as part of their popular Broadway Philadelphia series, the latest present-day incarnation of the enduring smash hit, directed by Michael Mayer, has hit town for a six-day run this week at the Forrest Theatre.
Euan Morton stars as the genderqueer protagonist who recounts a dramatic backstory in a mash-up of rock concert and drag cabaret, through personal direct-address anecdotes, up-close-and-personal interactions with the audience, and an expressive rock score that pays homage to the stars and genres of the earlier decades. Backed by the powerhouse four-piece band from the Broadway production (Music Director Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowitz), we get to know the compelling character from a troubled childhood in East Berlin (as “a slip of a girly-boy”) through a series of failed relationships (including current husband and back-up singer Yitzhak, played by Hannah Corneau), and a botched sex-change operation that left the eponymous “internationally-ignored” rocker with the titular “angry inch” (which is also the name of the fictional band).
Hedwig’s characterization by Morton, with a slight German accent (dialect coaching by Stephen Gabis) and a soft-spoken demeanor – until agitated, imitating others in the go-back narrative, or rocking out with the band and Corneau to a high-decibel number – feels more engaging than edgy, with alternating passages of risqué humor, saucy mannerisms, and heartfelt poignancy that make us all root for a happy ending and cheer the ultimate transformations that come with the challenging journey. Both Morton and Corneau deliver the songs with full vocal force or gentle introspection as required (with especially rousing performances of “Exquisite Corpse” and “Wicked Little Town” and a touching rendition of “The Origin of Love”) and move around the stage, up the aisle, and into the audience with energy, leaving no vestige of a fourth wall, under Mayer’s spirited blocking.
There are witty updated and local references that bring Hedwig’s story to Philadelphia now, and faux Playbills scattered throughout the audience that cleverly explain the show’s situation and locale, as if performed on the abandoned set of a failed production of Hurt Locker: The Musical, in a derelict scenic design by Julian Crouch. Animations (by John Bair/Phosphene) and projections (Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions) help to illustrate Hedwig’s tale, and an outstanding sound design by Tim O’Heir allows us to hear pieces of the big-stage concert by Hedwig’s “other half” Tommy Gnosis with the occasional opening and closing of a door. Over-the-top costumes by Arianne Phillips and wigs and make-up by Mike Potter support the glitz and glam of the figures, and Kevin Adams’ stunning lighting design, employing colorful spots and strobes, adds to the show’s visual excitement.
While real socio-cultural change is slow, Hedwig and the Angry Inch remains an important and entertaining arbiter for growth and acceptance, an indicator that, though we still have a way to go, some advancement has been made since the show’s groundbreaking debut in the ‘90s, and proof that art can make a difference in the world.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays through Sunday, April 23, 2017, at Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Forrest Theatre – 1114 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.