by Jeff Grygny
With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the upstart company All In Productions proves once more that they can put on a handsome, high-quality, edgy show. This wildly popular rock musical about the East German lounge singer with the unfortunate sex change operation is maybe not for the average Packer fan; but it has been taken into the bosoms (foam rubber and otherwise) of the LGBTQ community and friends, for whom it has become anthemic.
The story of this funny/sad/angry musical mirrors certain aspects of playwright John Cameron Mitchell’s life: the titular chanteuse grow up in East Germany and moves to Grand Junction Colorado (as did Mitchell); her rock star protege is the son of an army commander (as was Mitchell), and her profession (part-time babysitter sidelining as a prostitute) was inspired by a woman who actually babysat young Mitchell when his father was stationed in Germany. The hilariously bitter script plays with philosophy as well: Hedwig sings a story from Plato about how Zeus created love by splitting primeval humanity into two halves, which have been seeking each other ever since. And she names her own “other half” after the Greek word gnosis, which denotes a transcendental experience of truth.
Hedwig is on a misguided quest to complete herself by joining with another. But she finds strength in music even more than from wigs and mascara. After a cathartic climax, it’s not clear exactly what happens; we seem to depart from the fiction of the concert into some sort of meta-theater: the resolution is in the music, not the story. What seems clear at the end, though, is that this tortured, heroic soul has attained her gnosis.
But the show isn’t all myth-making, dirty jokes, and Germanic angst—simply put: it rocks. Music director Paula Foley Tillen and her band blow up the stage with the energy and spirit of the 80’s sounds that inspired Stephen Trask’s score, from pop to punk. It’s a pity that amplification issues sometimes muddy Trask’s wonderful lyrics, but the shifting waves of emotion come across loud and clear, like a queer Beethoven’s rock and roll symphony. In the title role, the incredibly talented Brett Sweeney surely gives one of the essential performances of the season; whether over-sharing with the audience, quivering like Tina Turner, or twitching on the floor like Iggy Pop, Sweeney delivers it all with courage, a powerful voice, and sensitivity to the moment. This Hedwig is especially tragicomic; we are never far from the wounded human being behind the risque asides and heavy makeup.
Director Robbie McGhee has created a plausible little world of the feckless Eurotrash band and their “ internationally-ignored” front person. There is clearly some backstory going on; we don’t really know what it is, but it gives everything a sense of happening in the moment, and makes the band into characters, not just an orchestra. A pair of theatrically-inclined guitarists especially bring their A games to each campy moment. Lydia Rose Eiche gets her chance to belt a little as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “husband;” a former drag queen who has been forbidden to queen, lest she upstage the star. (Yes, the drag queen husband is played by a woman in male drag, who later appears in female drag: how’s that for blurring boundaries? Incidentally, for the record: Hedwig is not trangender; Mitchell has clarified that we are to consider her “genderqueer.”) McGhee also adds a few gratuitous but audience-pleasing touches, as when they toss large inflatable gummy bears into the audience to bat around, or a cameo appearance by a life-sized, disgruntled Oompa-Loompa. Designer Lyn Kream has created Hedwig’s fabulous wardrobe, and Mike Van Dreser’s lighting brings a surprising variety of visual moods to the otherwise simple set.
In what has clearly been a labor of love, All In Productions has given this very challenging show as full a realization as you could wish. Even the gods have to smile at that.
All In Productions presents
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Text by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
playing through September 15
“Parental warning: HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH is rated PG-13.”