HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at the Oriental Theatre, Review – Real, Raw, and Relevant

 

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s spellbinding two-actor rock musical memoir, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is truly one-of-a-kind. It’s like a rare gem that’s been bruised and tarnished, yet it still retains its overall beauty.

 

Hedwig is an unparalleled musical. There is no other show quite like it, and I doubt there ever will be given that it came about in the mid-90s and retained that twisted grunge-style of the decade. It’s a mix of Nirvana and David Bowie. Not even RENT comes close to the innovative punk and glam-rock music that belts out loud (very loud actually) in Hedwig.

 

Euan Morton as Hedwig

 

It also has a personal emotional touch that is so remarkable, it forces you to engage in an unexpected way. I doubt you’d know anyone quite like Hedwig personally. She is, after all, an East German “slip of a girly boy” who undergoes a botched back alley sex operation only to endure a painful life of loneliness in America to become a third-rate rock star. Still, it’s difficult to watch this show without finding moments of her journey resonating with some aspect of your life. Hedwig is an underdog if there ever was one - we all know what that feels like.

 

Admittedly, I was a tad concerned with having Hedwig play at the Oriental Theatre, by far the largest and grandest of Chicago’s downtown touring houses. I was anxious that this would strip the painful intimacy from this piece and sanitize the show’s inherently raw grimy feel.

 

Euan Morton (front center), Hannah Corneau and Tits of Clay

 

After all, both Hedwig (the show) and Hedwig (the character), aren’t necessarily glittery. Despite the layers of makeup and wigs she wears, Hedwig’s overall look comes across just as rough, broken and bitter. Her outer layers are all a façade, a mask to hide the pain. Unlike her much scorned, and much yearned for former lover, Tommy Gnosis (the last name representing a double meaning of mythical and spiritual wisdom), a hugely successful rock star that owes much of his fame to Hedwig’s transformation of him, Hedwig, we’re led to believe, has been reduced to performing in rundown houses around the country.

 

But worry not, this shamelessly enjoyable national tour, which is based off the 2014 Broadway production, manages to preserve the show’s heart and, thanks to some clever tweaking of the script, it also maintains its disheveled out-of-place ambiance.

 

Euan Morton as Hedwig (front center)

 

How is this possible? Let’s start with the script, which has been updated so that Hedwig and her backup band, the Angry Inch (which also refers to what’s left of her male genitalia after a surgery gone wrong) and her eastern bloc drag-king husband Yitzak have been allowed to take over the Oriental Theatre for one night only after a disastrous pre-Broadway tryout of Hurt Locker: The Musical (I pray that this plot point stays fictional). That tryout hastily closed at intermission the previous night.

 

This change not only justifies Hedwig’s reason for performing in such a lavish theatre, but it also allows the show to utilize the outrageously exorbitant sets left behind by Hurt Locker. The clever scenic designs by Julian Crouch show a beleaguered Iraqi town seemingly stuck in a mid-explosion cartoonish freeze.

 

Both the set and the theatrical venue give further significance to the metaphors of split dualities which are abundant throughout Hedwig. Even Hedwig herself is a metaphorical character in many ways – her opening line is, “I’m the new Berlin Wall. Try to tear me down!” Thus, having such an unkempt show take place in such a large ornate theatre augments the central dualities ingrained into the textures of this complex work.

 

Euan Morton as Hedwig

 

First produced Off-Broadway in 1998, Hedwig was turned into a feature film in 2001. The movie bombed at the box office but has since gained a large cult following. Many fans were in attendance last Tuesday night, giving the biggest numbers its loudest applause. But they were easily outnumbered by the mass of perplexed Broadway In Chicago subscribers, many of whom bought subscription tickets only to score early tickets to see Hamilton. They didn’t know what to make of Hedwig. And, looking around at the sea of wealthy patrons afterward, it seemed that many people were almost in a confused trance.

 

It’s a natural place to be given all of the transgressive (pun intended) themes. Hedwig was and still is, way ahead of its time. While transgender issues have become more mainstream, this show’s stark lead being of an undefinable gender is still a shocking topic for a touring Broadway show. No other work in my mind displays such a completely well-rounded rendering of gender confusion in such emotionally devastating terms.

 

Euan Morton as Hedwig

 

In one of the most poignant moments, and there are many, Hedwig talks about a longing for human connection; what it must feel like to feel “the longitude of a hand on my body.” Being isolated by her gender deformity, she feels disconnected from others and abandoned by society at large. Among many things, Hedwig shows us the pain that divisions can cause.

 

The overarching message is that to find love, you must first accept every part of yourself. The core of the show takes shape from Plato’s Symposium, an ancient Greek text about humanity’s endless search to find their soulmates so they can feel complete. It’s a Platonic idea that humans were once double-creatures that came in three sexes (two males, two females, and male-females). The gods became jealous of their happiness and cut humans forever into two, forcing us to spend our lives seeking our “other halves” – an idea reinforced by the ever-present concept of the Berlin Wall.

Hedwig believes this search is for another person to complete her. Later she realizes the other half, both spiritually and physically (meaning our idea of gender identity) comes from within.

 

Hannah Corneau and Tits of Clay

 

Thus, Hedwig journey is essentially a quest for individuality. The musical starts out seeming like stand-up comedy, filled with eye-rolling raunchy cheap jokes that deserve, and often receive, rim shots. But halfway through it everything suddenly becomes much more real. It switches to an unexpected love story with the pounding sounds of rock slowly giving voice to a painful past. Given her background, it should come as no surprise that Hedwig’s off-color humor is her go-to defense mechanism, a way of coping with, and surviving an ordeal of failure, heartbreaks, and alienation.

 

Euan Morton as Hedwig

 

While there is much to love about Hedwig and much to admire about the slight revisions made for this tour, it’s not perfect. The most disconcerting aspects come from a blurry and often exhausting, performance by Scottish-born Broadway vet Euan Morton. Morton (who recently replaced glee’s Darren Criss in the title role) makes Hedwig’s pain all too obvious. He lacks subtly in both humor and tenderness.

 

It seems clear that Morton was cast more for his incredible singing than for his compelling stage presence. He’s far from terrible and often very moving. Hedwig is a role so rich in textures that it demands a performance that can captivate an entire 3,000 touring house. Morton only occasionally achieves that. It certainly doesn’t help matters that Morton’s heavy German accent made many lines, not to mention the lyrics to the entire first number, completely incomprehensible.

 

Hannah Corneau as Yitzhak

 

Faring much better, even outshining our lead, is Hannah Corneau as Hedwig’s sidekick Yitzhak. If I haven’t written much about her here, it’s because I haven’t quite figured out her character yet. That said, Corneau is remarkable. What this talented young actress can do with her voice is nothing short of amazing. Her vocal range goes from deep growly punk-rock sounds to a spot-on impression of Whitney Houston singing I Will Always Love You.

 

Hedwig’s ending is a source of debate and speculation. One in which the creators have refused to answer even for this tour. Its ultimate interpretation it seems is up to us. Just as Hedwig must decide what his purpose in life is, we too have to decide what the last moment means for us. Doing so forces us to change our perceptions and perhaps find the healing we all seek for ourselves.

 

Bottom Line: Hedwig and the Angry Inch is highly recommended.

 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Broadway In Chicago

Running Time: 1 Hour and 50 minutes with no intermission

Location: Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL 60601

Runs through: Sunday, March 19

Curtain Times: Tuesday – Friday at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM. There are additional performances on Wednesday, March 15 at 2 PM and Sunday, March 12 at 7:30 PM)

Tickets and Reservations: $35.00 - $108.00. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices including 24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St. and 175 E. Chestnut. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at (800) 775-2000. They can also be purchased at all Ticketmaster retail locations. As well as online (see link above).

Group and Premium Tickets: A select number of premium seats are also available for many performances. Tickets for groups of 10 or more can be reserved by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710.

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

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