There are so many things to recommend about Bay Street Theatre’s production of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s difficult to know where to start. This is vibrant live theater, as exuberant and electrifying as a rock ‘n’ roll concert, and a story that’s both hilarious and horrifying.
It’s alternative theater, to be sure – the loud music and frank dialogue about changing one’s sex won’t exactly sing for dedicated Rodgers and Hammerstein fans – but it’s a production that rewards anyone open to its non–traditional approach and clear–headed emotionalism.
Hedwig owes one hundred percent of its magnetic attraction to Christopher Blair, who’s onstage virtually the entire 90 minutes, in full drag, and upon whose performance the entire thing relies. Blair is a wonder, a revelation, a fireball, and he makes Hedwig Robinson such a likeable character that, despite her flaws and her occasional lapses in taste, we root for her to succeed.
The show is presented as a real–time rock performance, taking place in some godforsaken Midwestern lounge (here it’s actually set in Savannah). Hedwig, brazen and flamboyant (and extremely bitter) is fronting her band, the Angry Inch, and the songs and dialogue tell her unhappy life story.
She’s begun life as a purposeless young man in East Berlin named Hansel, with an absent father and a cold, loveless mother. Hansel finds sweet refuge in the rock ‘n’ roll of American Armed Services radio, to which he listened while curled up inside the kitchen stove, his head resting on the top rack.
Hansel gets free of the oppressive Communist city by marrying U.S. soldier Luther Robinson, who insists the young German undergo a sex–change operation before they relocate to America.
This, Hansel reluctantly does, becoming Hedwig, but the botched surgery leaves her with a closed–up vagina and a tiny mound of useless flesh (the “angry inch”). When Luther walks out, Hedwig is left alone, penniless, and – still – purposeless.
The songs, by Stephen Trask, are powerful and persuasive, from the hard–driving opener “Tear Me Down” to the sweet ballad “The Origin of Love” to the riotously funny “Sugar Daddy.”
Strutting and posing in dress and heels, in a succession of brazen wigs, Blair’s Hedwig plays the “rock chick” as if she understood the role from the day she/he was born. Or re-born.
With the talented Cecelia Arango as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s lover, foil and frequent abuse–target, the Angry Inch is a hard–rocking band. One or two of Trask’s more dramatic numbers, to these ears, sound a bit too much like Jim Steinman’s rock–operatic stuff from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and several echo sinewy Lou Reed or mid–period Bowie, but in this context they’re welcome and carry the story from one dramatic high to the next.
A major part of the plot concerns self–involved rock star Tommy Gnosis (Travis Harold Coles), who’s putting on a giant concert next door at the same time Hedwig’s on the low–rent lounge stage. Much of Hedwig’s bitterness comes from the fact that she taught Tommy how to play guitar and co–wrote many of his hit songs, yet he has abandoned her, too, and never publicly acknowledged her.
There’s more to it than that. In Hedwig’s long, frustrating search for a true soul mate (her “other half”), Tommy had been a prime candidate. She’s been used, rejected and trashed all her life, and the scars won’t heal any more than the “angry inch” below her waist.
The ending of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of the most moving and powerful denouements I have ever seen onstage, anywhere. I won’t describe it here; suffice to say Blair shines even brighter than before, and the play’s themes of soul, identity and purpose are focused in a single scene, under a single spotlight.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues Sept. 24–26 at Bay Street Theatre at Club One, 1 Jefferson St. See clubone–online.com