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A CurtainUp Review
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
By Les Gutman
In my book, and many others, Hedwig was the best musical of 1998. It was also, probably, the most unusual. It materialized with an unapologetic, take-no-prisoners rock score, an in-your-face story line that builds on a surprisingly sophisticated foundation and, unlike the typical show, a creative team that was front-and-center on-stage, not lurking in the wings.
A year later, Hedwig is still going strong, now buoyed by a cast album (see link below), national media attention and talk of not only other productions but a movie version as well. At the Jane Street Theatre, only one thing has changed: the immensely talented authors, John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), have passed the baton to new performers. The question of the moment: is it still the same fiercely original show? The quick answer: happily, yes.
In Hedwig's construct, the audience is attending the opening night of the New York gig of Hedwig (Michael Cerveris), an "internationally ignored" transvestite rock star. Hedwig recounts, in word and song, her search for identity. Intertwined with the sometimes sordid and raunchy details of the transformation of Hansel, an East Berlin boy, into Hedwig, is a remarkably acute observation about the nature of love and of self. Oh yes, and a plethora of very funny material. A sample:
It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? Is it Daddy? He went away. Or Mother? I was suddenly afraid to go back to bed. What does this person look like? Identical to me? Or somehow complementary?...And what about sex? Is that how we put ourselves back together again? Is that what Daddy was trying to do to me? Or can two people actually become one again? And if we're driving on the Autobahn when it happens, can we still use the diamond lane?
By the time the Berlin wall tumbles, Hedwig has tumbled too: a botched sex-change operation has left Hedwig with the "angry inch" of the show's title; and Luther, her ticket out of East Berlin, has taken her only as far as a trailer park near an army base in Junction City, Kansas. Music becomes Hedwig's life, a passion eagerly shared with the local general's son, Tommy Speck. But misfortune continues to plague Hedwig. As Hedwig opens her show in the dingy ballroom of the seedy Hotel Riverview, irony collides with anguish: Tommy (now sporting the telling last name Hedwig concocted for him -- Gnosis -- and singing the songs she wrote for him) is performing across the river for what sounds like a capacity crowd at Giant Stadium.
The backbone of Hedwig is Mitchell's endearing narrative and the stunning collection of ten songs Stephen Trask has written. Spanning an impressive range of moods and styles, they accomplish a feat that evades the writers of many new musicals: they relate the feelings they are intended to express. From the hard-edged opening number, "Tear Me Down," Hedwig shifts into the lullaby, "The Origin of Love". By the time it ends, the philosophical premise of Hedwig has been established. To tell the story of Luther, Trask turns to country (the bouncy "Sugar Daddy"), then shifts into nail-spitting intensity to describe the botched operation ("Angry Inch"). Grim optimism takes hold in the surprisingly poignant sing-a-long, "Wig in a Box". A plaintive lounge song, "Wicked Little Town," morphs later into a concert mode.
The fear -- that Mitchell's personal charm and Trask's accomplished hand on the musical throttle are critical -- quickly proves unfounded. While there are moments when the memory of Mitchell's clever banter results in a bit of wishing for him onstage, Cerveris has added enough of his own enthusiastic, nuanced shtick to more than make up for what is lost. And then there is his musical performance. As incredibly talented as Mitchell is, Cerveris is the finer performer. He brings breathtaking intensity to Trask's songs, and engenders a surprisingly stronger reaction from the audience. Only in the hollow wails of "Wicked Little Town," where Mitchell's textured voice is more interesting, did I feel any longing for the original article. Joe Pecorino (replacing Trask as the band's vowel challenged front man, Skszp) and cohorts (replacing Trask's band, Cheater) are also fully up to the task.
For those who have already fallen into Hedwig's spell, and those who have until now resisted, the current incarnation should still rank up at the top of the to-do list. The CD case features a "Parental Advisory" for "explicit content" that, as the above no doubt makes clear, obtains for the show as well. Those with a penchant for ear plugs might want to bring along a pair although the music really veers more into occasional harshness than ear-splitting loudness.
A final note: part of the "ambiance" of the Hotel Riverview is its interesting history, which includes sheltering the surviving crew of the Titanic when they first reached dry land and boasting Herman Melville as its one-time desk clerk. It's one of the last unrazed vestiges of this section of the West Village -- just below the meatpacking district Hedwig claims is now known by its tonier acronym -MEPA.