Long before there were public bathroom controversies and related court cases-in-the-making, there was “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the punk rock musical about a transgender singer who made his/her way from East Berlin to a U.S. army outpost in Kansas shortly before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989.
The work of John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics), the show debuted Off Broadway in 1998, and was, to be sure, somewhat ahead of its time in its transgressive (no pun intended) way. In the interim it has been staged in many small venues (including, most notably, an American Theater Company production in 2009), appropriate to its notion that singer-songwriter Hedwig Robinson would end up as a performer in low-rent clubs. A high price to pay for someone who sacrificed a crucial part of his anatomy in order for an American G.I to marry “him,” and who underwent a botched operation that resulted in a sort of gender limbo.
‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’ Not recommended When: Through March 19 Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $35 – $108 Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission
Given the current topicality of the musical, it is understandable that producers saw its Broadway potential. But as the national touring production of the show’s 2014 Broadway incarnation suggests, the idea could not have been more wrong-headed. Now on a stop at the 2,200-seat Oriental Theatre, the show seems to suggest that Hedwig (a marathon role played here by the Scottish-born actor Euon Marton) became a star. And the whole point of the show is that “he/she” came to terms with his/her identity, but never made it big in the music biz, but found the meaning of love.
More than that, by amping up everything about the show (the deafening sound, the consistently blinding laser lights, the scale of the scenery), the heart of the story gets lost. So does the world out of which it sprang. The unique time period in which it was rooted is further upended with a few recently added quips, as when Hedwig notes “It’s the direction of the aggression that defines the act,” and follows that up with the observation to the audience: “Write that down; you’ll need it in the next four years.”
Under Michael Meyer’s big, flashy and relentlessly loud direction (featuring a set that often has Hedwig perched atop a car and surrounded by elaborate projections), grandiosity does not make for enhancement. The fact that a good half of the show’s lyrics get lost in this 110-minute intermission-less production also doesn’t help. A few Hitler and Holocaust “jokes,” there from the start and germane to the story, generate disconcerting laughter in the audience. And really, didn’t Miley Cyrus outdo Hedwig in the twerking and simulated humping category?
The show is, of course, a story of how self-acceptance is of the essence, and how there can be no real love —or the finding of your other half —until that acceptance of self occurs. And this extends to the character of Yitzak (Hannah Corneau, so formidable as Eva Peron in the 2016 Marriott Theatre production of “Evita”), the waifish Jewish drag queen from Zagreb who affects a sadbutch veneer, dotes on Hedwig and is treated with contempt.
Not surprisingly, Hedwig’s first marriage falls apart. And the tale of her relationship with the pimply, Christian fundamentalist adolescent for whom she babysat ends when the kid becomes a rock sensation who never acknowledges his musical tutor. (Throughout the show a door at the back of the stage is opened allowing Hedwig to hear the guy’s rapturous applause at an arena concert.) But in this case, Hedwig has his/her own arena audience with which he occasionally interacts, even spewing gulps of the Red Bull he sips at some unlucky patrons in the front row.
No one could argue with the fact that Morton (who originated the role of Boy George in the musical “Taboo”) works like the devil and punches out the iconic title song, as well as “Exquisite Corpse” and most of the other numbers in the show, with fierce energy. But he generates little empathy or emotional connection. And knowing what Corneau can really do, all that can be said is that she is sadly underutilized here.
The members of Hedwig’s onstage band “The Angry Inch” – music directorJustin Craig (on guitar, keyboards and vocals) along with Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Peter Yanowitz —also never stop. They could easily have had a gig at the now defunct CBGB. And that pretty much says all you need to know.