Regional Reviews: Boston
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
From the moment she slinks on stage, it's clear that this Hedwig lives for our applauseeven as she tries desperately to conceal it. She's a beguiling entertainer (especially with Morton's strong pipes). And she's got a nasty way with a bawdy one-liner, coolly eying her audience with the same disenchantment she has for her band, The Angry Inch. But under that glittering blue eye shadow and those towering blonde wigs (as magnificent as you'd expect) Hedwig is coming face to face with the painful history she carries around, haunting her night after night. That hurt comes through powerfully in the show that has landed at the Shubert Theatre.
This production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Michael Mayer, is touring the U.S. following a 2014 Broadway revival that won Neil Patrick Harris a Tony Award. With transgender rights currently being argued and decided in federal courts, Hedwig's story could have been written this year. After all, she was born in East Berlin, and she's seen the damaging effects a wall has on the people it divides. Now she's finally become mainstream, embraced by an audience that hangs on her every soul-bearing word.
Back in 1998, Hedwig was a cult hit in a small Off-Broadway theater, led by John Cameron Mitchell (who also wrote the book) as the world-weary performer. For those of us who discovered Mitchell's 2001 movie when we were growing up, it was likely one of our first experiences seeing a cinematic gender-ambiguous icon, who gave voice to the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity and riffed on punk and David Bowie and Europop as she traveled through time with Stephen Trask's catchy vintage-rock songs. Many pop-rock musicals have followed in her high-heeled footsteps, but Hedwig's determination to find self-acceptance and go on with the show still feels incredibly urgent.
The conceit of this production is that Hedwig and her band bring their touring act (usually confined to dive bars) to a big Boston stage, stepping onto the set of a shuttered musical to take over the stuffy Shubert for one night only. While she's in town, she gets in a few burns that locals will love (be warned, Marty Walsh!), including a nod to the smell of legalized marijuana in the air. Her act is less a concert than a confessional. Amid the rock and roll, she shares her life story, starting with her youth as a German "girlyboy" yearning for more, to a brief marriage with an American soldier who takes her to Kansas just before the Berlin Wall falls. She must pass as a woman to marry, so she submits to a botched sex-change surgery that leaves her somewhere between genders. ("And then you're someone you are not," she confides.)
Morton, who never leaves the stage (except to flirt with a lucky someone in the audience), is inexhaustible, taking us deeper into Hedwig's brokenness as the night wears on. It's in these spaces between songs when he really embodies the disregarded diva in all her tragicomic glory. The show's pacing can drag during these interludes, especially early on as the audience is still settling into the mood. But Morton slyly reels us in, earning our sympathy even as Hedwig becomes increasingly surly and combative to her band and back-up singer and husband Yitzhak (Hannah Corneau). As the act goes on, Hedwig breaks down over the looming shadow of Tommy Gnosis, her one-time flame who built his runaway rock career (he's performing at a larger venue next door) by stealing her songs.
Speaking of which, you're not likely to hear Trask's music sung better than this. Morton has an impressively rangy, clear-as-crystal tenor, which moves from poignant on the introspective "Wicked Little Town," to muscular and heartbreaking for the hard-rock manifesto of "Midnight Radio." At Morton's side, as the trod-upon Yitzhak, a former drag performer now reduced to Hedwig's assistant, Corneau has quite a voice, too, which she unleashes in the finale with a power and precision that makes you wonder what her Hedwig might be like. Corneau's Yitzhak starts off unassuming at first; when he finally takes control of the mike and enters the spotlight, we're proud to see him emerge from his chrysalis before our eyes. Both leads are supported by a dynamic on-stage band: Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock, and Peter Yanowitz, all of whom keep the music rocking while Hedwig showers them with bitchy putdowns.
If there's one drawback, Michael Mayer's staging feels overproduced for Hedwig's scrappy little show. There's a lot of fancy stagecraft tucked into Julian Crouch's set that doesn't feel organic to her act, from an animation that plays over "Origin of Love" to a shelf of wigs that descends from the rafters to lead us (I'm not joking) in a sing-along. It feels like the creative team pushed for effects to make Hedwig fill a large theater, but this diva doesn't need much beyond a microphone and her audience.
"Suddenly I'm this punk rock star of stage and screen," she sings, flashing back to 1989 Kansas, where she started to try on wigs and makeup, and discovered her great talent for transformation and reinvention. "And I ain't never, I'm never turning back." Her anger hasn't abated, but thankfully she's no longer the only trans or genderqueer performer we see represented today. With Morton at the helm, Hedwig is the rock star she's always been.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch will play at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre (265 Tremont St., Boston) through June 11, 2017. Tickets start at $35.00 and are on sale at the Boch Center box office, www.bochcenter.org, or by calling (866) 348-9738. For more information on the tour, visit www.hedwigbroadway.com.
Cast: Euan Morton (Hedwig); Hannah Corneau (Yitzhak); Shannon Conley (Yitzhak at select performances).
The Angry Inch: Justin Craig (Music Director/Skszp); Matt Duncan (Jacek); Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff); Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko); Sean Liljequist (Krzyzhtoff at select performances).
Creative Team: John Cameron Mitchell (Book); Stephen Trask (Music and Lyrics); Michael Mayer (Director); Spencer Liff (Musical Staging); Julian Crouch (Scenic Design); Arianne Phillips (Costume Design); Kevin Adams (Lighting Design); Mike Potter (Hair and Makeup Design); Tim O'Heir (Sound Design); Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions (Projection Design); John Bair/Phosphene (Animation); Ethan Popp (Music Supervisor & Music Coordinator); Stephen Gabis (Dialect Coach); Johanna McKeon (Associate Director).