Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
And so in full fury on the compact floor arena of San Jose's The Stage, Hedwig and the Angry Inch explodes. Bay Area favorites Keith Pinto and Ashley Garlick play gender-fluid Hedwig and her back-up singing husband Yitzhak, a former drag queen, as they each take John Cameron Mitchell's book and Stephen Trask's score and bring their own electric, ecstatic, and erotic interpretations to this 1998 Off-Broadway, 2014 Broadway hit. The result is a ninety-minute concert that mixes bawdily funny stand-up comedy, wildly athletic and sex-packed choreography, and super-charged rock numbers to tell a bizarre but beautiful story of two people seeking to find peace in who they are, individually and together.
Arriving with sparkling red lips, one-inch eyelashes, and golden hair with two bundled halves bookending her head ("They're my lungs"), Hedwig begins what at first looks like a stand-up act for the nearby San Jose Improv Comedy Club. She offers hearty and bawdy commentary on The Stage's to-date season that now ends with her show and talks about how big this opening tonight is for her and for The Stage. "When it comes to huge openings, many people think of me" is just the first of her many double-edged comments of the evening, all having a sexual undertone that is far from subtle.
Hedwig plops herself on a stool and begins to tell us her life story, illustrated in the background by both newsreel films of her East German, childhood surroundings and by crayon pictures she drew as a kid (all part of an ongoing array of realistic and fantastical projections designed by Garland Thompson, Jr.). With a voice that is at first luring and lusty, morphs into a deep, canyon echo, then cuts through the air with blade-like edge, and finally trumpets to a blast that shakes the rafters but never loses its musicality, Keith Pinto's Hedwig rocks out in "Tear Me Down."
"I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two ... I made it over the great divide, now I'm coming for you," she thunders. Peppering her story with audience member flirting and with risqué, rude, and racy one-liners galore, Hedwig tells how a boy named Hansel born in East Berlin in 1961 eventually ends up as female Hedwig, married in 1989 to a U.S. soldier named Luther in Junction City, Kansas. That Hansel had to have a botched sex change operation to escape the Iron Curtain ("Six inches forward and five inches back ... I got an angry inch") and that Luther finds a boyfriend and leaves his bride trailer-park-poor on their first anniversary (the same day the Berlin wall came down) is only part of the sad tale Hedwig relates in both conversation and song.
Still to come in her story is an awakening in the midst of her abandoned misery of the outrageously glamor insider her ("Wig in a Box"); a newfound soul-mate named Tommy who is seventeen, cute, and musically talented ("Wicked Little Town"); and a new drag-queen husband (Yitzhak), who has to give up with lingering resentment her own wig and gown to be Hedwig's new life companion. Oh, and she also forms the band we see before us tonight called "The Angry Inch," performing in coffee houses and cheap auditoria while trailing after Tommy who is now a major rock star using the songs she wrote with him to secure his fame.
Keith Pinto displays a myriad of ways to relate to this close-in audience as Hedwig talks and sings her way through a tale full of debauchery and disappointment. He bends, stretches, pumps, and bumps his trim, no-fat-allowed body, putting those glistening red lips, ivory-white teeth, startling big eyes, and flipped-about blonde hair to full use in the telling. But Keith Pinto and Hedwig are at their best when singing in soft melodic flows to full rock-star explosions the songs Stephen Trask wrote that recall sounds of the 1970s of glam rocker David Bowie, puck rockers Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and even the ballads of the Beatles.
All the time, Hedwig sells her songs with power and pizzazz rolling out of Hedwig's entire being with lines like "I put on some make up, turn up the eight-track. I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf". And to some surprise on my part, the opening night audience of more than just a few loyal but older patrons eats her up with bobbing heads, big smiles, and even arms waving high above their heads.
As Hedwig spills forth her life's story, she often takes on the persona of other key characters as she interacts with them, starting with her East German mother who insisted then-son Hansel practice his singing with head in the oven in order not to disturb her. When the soldier Luther sees Hansel sunning himself in the nude, Hedwig recalls (while having some body-to-body contact with various old dodgers in the audience) their first encounter in "Sugar Daddy," singing in tempting, luring voice, "I've got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly roll ... Hey, sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl."
Hedwig then becomes the golly-gee-whiz, cowboy-sounding, American Luther who wants Hansel to be his lady-boy. Advising "Baby, to walk away, you gotta leave something behind," his mother with Luther's backing convinces Hansel to undergo the sex-altering operation as a ticket to marriage to Luther, freedom from the Communists, and a flight to the coveted U.S. And thus, the birth of the Hedwig we see before us.
But the greatest character conversion accomplishment of Hedwig and Keith Pinto comes late in the show when Hedwig strips away all signs of his feminine self to appear in near the birthday suit to which he was born, morphing into Tommy Gnosis, the now-stage name of the teenage boy he once taught to sing. Throughout Hedwig's show at The Stage, Tommy has been heard from time to time blasting forth his own rock concert in a nearby, sold-out SPC Center (something we hear thanks to excellent sound design by Steve Schoenbeck). Hedwig bitterly and forlornly believes Tommy has totally forgotten her. As the stripped-down, sweat-dripping Tommy on stage, Keith Pinto delivers his most poignant, best song of the night as the singer finally acknowledges his debt to Hedwiga reprise of the song Hedwig earlier sings when she writes it with the seventeen-year-old Tommy, "Wicked Little Town."
Throughout the concert/staged story, Hedwig has been joined in backup by her silent, morose-looking husband Yitzhak, the Jewish ex-drag queen standing at a mike often stroking or putting over his head a long strand of what seems to be Hedwig's locks. Even as Hedwig periodically abuses Yitzhak with sarcastic comments or threats of immigration agents arriving, Yitzhak renders stunningly clear notes of soprano to harmonize with Hedwig's own male voice. Ashley Garlick brings a beautiful voice both when singing soft and melancholy and when turning up the volume to all-out loudas proven in a brief time at the center microphone in "The Long Grift." But it is in the show's finale that Ashley Garlick reigns forth as a star of the night in her own right.
Also important to the entire evening's energy and musical dynamism are the five members of the onstage band, The Angry Inch. Each takes on an immigrant name and punk persona with individual personality while playing, singing, and often interacting in song, dance, and bodily contact with Hedwig. Musical director and keyboardist Katie Coleman is Hlava; bass guitarist Jeremy Pollett, Jacek; lead guitarist Loki Miller, Krzyzhtoff; guitarist Jonathan Rhys Williams, Skszp; and drummer Ryan Stohs, Schlatko.
Allison F. Rich's initial venture into directingputting aside for one The Stage show her oft-role as lead actressis nothing short of a resounding success. She guides a concert-style show into a mixture of comedy, song, electric music, projections, and sexual energy that never forgets there is a story here that can be familiar, relevant and heartwarming to any audience member of any ageeven if the music is often not the kind most would ask at home for Alexa to play.
Not to be overlooked in well-deserved kudos are the wild costumes of Abra Berman, the golden locks and glam make-up designed by leading lady Ashley Garlick, and the rock-concert-worthy scenic setting and lighting of Michael Palumbo.
As brassy and ballsy, as crude and crass, and as over-the-top and outlandish that Hedwig and the Angry Inch always is on any and every stage, Keith Pinto, Ashley Garlick, and Allison Rich ensure that the heart, the poignancy, and the uplifting message of the musical totally are the final memory. Two people journey through many hard times trying to find a place in their own souls where acceptance of self and of each other can be found. In San Jose at The Stage, Hedwig and Yitzhak find their peace.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, through July 22, 2018, at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.