First and foremost, one must give kudos to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers for having to guts to bring the rocking, gender-bending tale of Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the conservative Midwest city of Cincinnati. The fact that the ETC production is so good is just an added bonus.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is set at a modestly attended rock concert performance by mediocre glamour rock gal Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch. Hedwig tells her story through song and dialogue, tracing her life as a young German boy, the product of an uncaring mother and an American GI who left them. Growing up confused and consoled mostly by listening to Armed Forces radio (inside his oven!!), the adolescent is befriended by another American GI, who wishes to marry him and carry him off to America. However, a sex change operation is required first. Unfortunately, the procedure is botched and all that is left is a one-inch piece of useless flesh. After coming to America, Hedwig is divorced, living in a Kansas trailer park as a woman, and performing in seedy dives and Sizzlers. She finds her soul mate in a young musician named Tommy Gnosis. However, after discovering Hedwig's true (or lack of) sexual identity, Tommy leaves and uses the songs they wrote together to become a huge rock star (who happens to be performing next door to thousands at the Firstar Center).
The well-written dialogue and book is by John Cameron Mitchell, who played Hedwig in the original production that ran Off- Broadway a few years ago (and who plays the role in the soon-to-be released feature film of the same title). It is funny, biting, and sardonic, while at times also showing the pain, confusion, and anger felt by the lead character. The score is by Stephen Trask and is an effective mix of various rock styles. While not in the classic musical theater style, these rocking tunes show Hedwig's emotions and the lyrics effectively tell her "interesting" story. Both the music and book go somewhat astray toward the end of the show before regaining focus by the final two songs, but the wonderful first half and satisfying ending make it a strong, yet non-traditional musical theater piece.
As Hedwig, University of Cincinnati - College Conservatory of Music (CCM) graduate Todd Almond plays the "internationally ignored" musician with the energy, humor, emotional depth, and appropriate level of camp required for the role. The former voice major at CCM sings the score with great power and control, toys with the audience (often adding in hilarious adlibs and barbs towards some of the older and more conservative looking theatergoers), and forces the audience to care about this odd character. As Hedwig's husband Yitzhak, Harris Mehring (sic) brings a beautiful and complimentary singing voice and effective acting to the difficult role. The Angry Inch consists of some of Cincinnati's best musicians: Philip Solomon (who also serves competently as musical director for the piece), Michael Horrigan, Billy Alletzhauser, Sam Womelsdoft, and Andrew Smithson.
Director D. Lynn Meyers presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch with great humor and the necessary depth to make it a true theatrical piece rather than just a rock concert with a story. Brian C. Mehring has transformed the ETC stage into a second-rate rock concert venue just right for an appearance by Hedwig and her band. His lighting and scenic design include the back stage door that, when opened, allows the audience to hear the Tommy Gnosis concert down the street, as well an authentic rock n' roll lighting display. The costumes by Reba Senske and wigs and make-up by David Warda are appropriately funky and camp, and in some cases better than those in the original New York production. Unfortunately, the volume of the band during the songs is too loud and makes discerning the lyrics nearly impossible in some cases (even for someone who just listened to the New York cast recording that very day). The choice to have the sound volume so high does fit the setting of a rock concert, but greatly distracts from the theatrical goals of the show and is the production's greatest flaw.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is a colorful, intelligent, and humorous exploration into the life of this fictional rocker and satisfies in almost every way. With improved (lowered) sound, it could be near perfect. It is likely that many who see the upcoming film version of the show will be wishing they had seen this top-rate production of what is sure to be a cult-classic.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch ran from June 6 - 23.
-- Scott Cain