Hedwig Robinson, the main attraction of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s cult-favorite rock musical, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” has played plenty of Chicago venues at this point in her career. Evanston, on the other hand, is new territory. “Chicago… -adjacent,” Hedwig teases in the just-opened staging by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, in that company’s new digs just a few feet across the city limits on the Evanston side of Howard Street. But Mitchell’s outré creation — here ably embodied by the electric young actor Will Lidke — tears down the wall to the suburbs just fine, without sacrificing any of her unique sensibilities.
Taking the form of a 90-minute concert-cum-confessional, “Angry Inch” is essentially a monologue-with-songs in which Hedwig recounts to us the series of transitions that have left her the person we see before us. I hate to step on Hedwig’s toes — though her boots are surely steel-toed as well as kitten-heeled — but I’ll offer a rundown for the uninitiated.
Hedwig Robinson was born in Berlin in 1961 as Hansel Schmidt, on the east side of the wall erected that year to divide the city. “One day in the late mid-’80s, when I was in my early late 20s,” Hansel meets an American soldier who offers an escape from East Berlin — but Hansel will have to leave a bit of himself behind for the plan to work. “The Angry Inch,” we learn, is both the name of Hedwig’s backing band and what she calls the results of a shoddy sex-reassignment surgery.
(It’s worth mentioning here that the show, which premiered in New York in 1998, has maintained its devoted audience across the last two decades even as the language and thinking around gender identity has evolved at a rapid clip. At a fundamental level, as represented in the mythology-minded song “The Origin of Love,” “Hedwig” the musical takes a binary view of gender while placing Hedwig the character as uncomfortably and accidentally in-between. Mitchell has suggested in interviews that Hedwig today might identify with non-binary terms like genderqueer.)
A year after coming to America, Hedwig is a female-presenting divorcee, living in a Kansas trailer park and reckoning with her choices as she watches the Berlin Wall come down on TV. Fast-forward a few more years, she’s performing her setlist of recriminations and regrets for us, trying to drown out the sounds of a nearby stadium show by wildly famous rock star Tommy Gnosis — Hedwig’s former protege and unrequited love.
Mitchell’s script is built to be malleable, allowing for both improvisation and localized references. As in nearly every edition of “Hedwig” I’ve seen in Chicago, we’re told here that Tommy’s concert is happening at Wrigley Field. Most of those North Side theaters were close enough to get away with the idea that we could hear it from a few blocks away; here, with all of the acknowledgments that we’re sitting in Evanston, it’s more than a seventh-inning stretch.
That goes double for the show’s chronology, which at this point is badly mangled. The connection to the Berlin Wall requires Hedwig’s date of birth to be fixed in time, but cultural references that place the show in our present (Lidke’s Hedwig does an extended audience-interaction bit around the smartphone hookup app Grindr) confuse things, not least because Lidke seems to still be approaching his “early late 20s” even as Hedwig reminisces about hers.
That’s forgivable, as the show leans into impressionism over realism anyway. Director Toma Tavares Langston’s one major misstep in an otherwise compelling staging, though, is more damaging: Where the show’s cast is normally limited to Hedwig, her put-upon backup singer Yitzhak (played here by Brittney Brown) and the onstage band, Langston invents two additional backup singers who also portray offstage characters like Hedwig’s mother, the American soldier, and Tommy Gnosis himself — all traditionally embodied by the actor playing Hedwig.
With no disrespect to those actors, Adriana Tronco and Jacob Gilchrist, their scenes make for a jarring intrusion of staginess into a story that should be all Hedwig’s to tell, and it ever-so-slightly undermines Lidke’s confident, charismatic hold on us. (Even their presence as unnamed backup singers feels odd, since the script provides a dynamic for Hedwig and Yitzhak’s relationship, while these other two bodies onstage go mostly unacknowledged by the title character.)
Still, the additional voices add some oomph to Trask’s phenomenal collection of genre-pastiche songs; in new arrangements by Theo Ubique’s resident music director Jeremy Ramey, familiar tunes like “Wig in a Box” and “Wicked Little Town” sound like they’ve gone through their own radical, remarkable reinventions — making Evanston worth the (re)visit for Hedwig’s ardent fans.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.