Gussied up ‘Hedwig’ still a potent testament to hope and defiance
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Hedwig and the Angry Inch|
Review by Catey Sullivan
There are so many essential life lessons in Hedwig and the Angry Inch that it’s tough to know where to begin. There’s the metaphorical reminder that a wig-in-a-box can move you from catatonic depression to defiant jubilance. There’s the ferocious insistence that even the most broken among us can find love and completion. And there’s the sanity-saving declaration that you can transcend the most demoralizing circumstances. Bliss is accessible, even if you’re stuck in a sawed-off Winnebago in Junction City, Nowheresville, with no source of income save the occasional and wholly demeaning odd job.
Such is the take-away from Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) and John Cameron Mitchell’s hard-rocking musical. The story is a modern day mash-up of ancient mythologies (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian). The score is an innovative homage to the Velvet Underground by way of Ziggy Stardust with a dash of Sid Vicious and arena-rock bombast thrown in. Together, the story and the music make the journey of Hedwig as powerful as a thunderbolt-wielding Zeus. It’s a trip to Osiris’ underworld and back by way of East Germany, Kansas and Aristophanes.
In the latest touring incarnation, Hedwig’s breathtaking score and heart-lifting story burn brightly. The glitzy production is not without issues – most of them rooted in the glitz-on-steroids production values. Still, all is forgiven when the cast launches into the likes of “Midnight Radio,” “Wicked Little Town,” and “The Origin of Love.” Led by Euan Morton as Hedwig and Hannah Corneau as Hedwig’s long-suffering companion Yitzhak, the on-stage band delivers the score with a luminosity and an intensity that will make your bones vibrate like tuning forks.
That said, there are two significant problems with director Michael Mayer’s big-budget bus ‘n truck extravaganza. The biggest one has to do with the massive, over-the-top set and pyrotechnic lighting effects. Hedwig began in 1998 as a scruffy, off-Broadway show, and that scruff was integral to its success and charm. The sensibility of the 280-seat Jane Street Theatre was far more CBGB’s than Nederlander palace. As Hedwig picked up momentum and moved from off-Broadway to London to Broadway, it left a gritty piece of itself behind. The set expanded to fill 1,000+ seat theaters. The special effects were amped way up.
Now, Hedwig’s burned-out crater of a set (by Julian Crouch) features a full-sized wrecked car that actually levitates in a visual that evokes the famous floating tire in the finale of Cats. Lighting designer Kevin Adams and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy’s explosive visuals are worthy of Brittany’s Vegas show. Costume designer Arianne Phillips has replicated the bedazzled tatters of Hedwig’s origins, but she’s done so with a polish that reads Big Budget more than Thrift Shop Glam.
All of which is to say that Hedwig has been gussied up and deeply commercialized. That it still works in terms of both potent storytelling and hard-rocking music is a testament to the book, lyrics and score and to director Mayer’s ability to keep the show’s authenticity in the forefront even when it is surrounded by flash and dazzle. For all the opulence that’s been thrown at Hedwig, the show maintains its profane, irreverent heart.
As Hedwig, Morton turns in a super-charged performance of epic physicality and equally intense emotional depth. Morton has the comic timing to make the show’s mildly ad-libbish segments feel spontaneous. His banter also brings a crucial edge of humor to Hedwig’s harrowing story. That humor is essential: Hedwig’s bio includes an abusive childhood spent under the iron fist of East German totalitarianism, a botched sex-change operation and multiple abandonments. Omit the pitch-black twisted comedy that permeates the show, and you’ve got a tale of relentless grimness.
As Hedwig’s much-abused right-hand-man Yitzhak, Corneau nails vocal demands ranging from ethereal Whitney Houston riffs to punkish, haunting laments to belting anthems big enough to fill Wrigley Field. Corneau’s “The Long Grift” is especially powerful, an ode to bitter wisdom won at all-but unimaginable cost.
Music director and keyboardist Justin Craig leads a band (Matt Duncan on bass, guitar, keyboard and vocals; Tim Mislock on guitar and vocals and Peter Yanowitz on drums and vocals) that makes the most of the Oriental Theatre’s imperfect acoustics. The cavernous space isn’t built for concerts, and Hedwig is as much rock concert as it is musical theater. Sound designer Tim O’Heir has his work cut out for him. Even imperfect, Hedwig sounds sublime. By the finale, you will be under the spell of the music, swaying to the midnight radio that Hedwig and Co. bring to brilliant life.
There’s powerful, abundant joy in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There is also contagious bravery. If Hedwig can survive, so can we all.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through March 19th at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map). Tickets are $22-$115, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BroadwayInChicago.com. (Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Euan Morton (Hedwig), Hannah Corneau (Yitzak), Justin Craig (Skszp, keyboards, guitar, vocals), Matt Duncan (Jacek, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tim Mislock (Krzyhtoff, guitar, vocals, standby for Skszp), Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko, drums, vocals), Mason Alexander Park (standby for Hedwig), Shannon Conley (standby for Yitzak), Dylan Fusillo (standby for Schlatko), Sean Liljequist (standby for Jack and Krzyzhtoff).
behind the scenes
Michael Mayer (director), Justin Craig (music director), Spencer Liff (musical staging), Julian Crouch (scenic design), Arianne Phillips (costume design), Kevin Adams (lighting design), Mike Potter (wigs and makeup design), Tim O’Heir (sound design), Benjamin Pearcy (projections design), Ethan Popp (musical supervisor and coordinator), Stephen Gabis (dialect coach), Jovon E. Shuck (stage manager), Jeff Siewerth (asst. stage manager), John Bair (animation), Johanna McKeon (associated director), Paul McGill (movement associate), Lisa Iacucci (production stage manager), Joan Marcus (photos)