HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, is a rock musical written by John Cameron Mitchell, with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. The musical premiered in 1998 off Broadway, where it ran for a couple years and racked up both Obie and Outer Circle Critics awards. It has since been performed all over and has finally come to Buffalo in this excellent ALT production.
Mr. Mitchell starred in the 2001 film version of HEDWIG, which I recall as a somewhat muddled and confused affair, a result which could well be derived from the sometimes confusing material. The stage version strikes me as more cohesive.
Based loosely on Mitchell’s experience as an army brat in Berlin (where his father served as a General), the title character, Hedwig, is a trans-gender rock singer, who fronts a punk band called “The Angry Inch”. The real Hedwig was a German-born US Army wife (and a part time hooker) who once served as the Mitchell family nanny. Not exactly the Maria von Trapp model governess.
In a nutshell, so to speak, Hedwig falls for an American soldier, who wants to marry her and bring her home to the US. But there’s a catch, he must marry Hedwig in Germany, which will require a physical exam, with the obvious complication.
Thus Hedwig is urged by her mother to go the full distance. (“You have to leave something behind in order to go forward.”) Hedwig agrees to have gender reassignment surgery, which goes awry and, rather than having proper female genitalia, she is left with an inch sized lump – the “angry inch.”
Rock musicals can be a tough sell. Too often they will be over-produced into an operatic excess and whatever weak story serves as the basis of the play is overwhelmed by a loud (and mediocre) band playing cheesy music. This HEDWIG escapes that fate, the story is well told, lucid and given the gender-bending topic, can be unexpectedly tender and, well, kind of sweet. The story propels the music, and the music is sensational.
Loraine O’Donnell is one of the consummate actors in Buffalo and she’s one hell of a singer. She never turns in less than a strong performance. Her portrayal of Dusty Springfield in 2008 was spot on, but here, as Hedwig, Ms. O’Donnell has literally transformed herself into a completely new human being – and she is devastating. This is one of those rare “You have to see it to believe it” performances.
Ms. O’Donnell rigorously trained for and lost weight to take on the physical role of Hedwig, and that deep commitment is reflected in her performance. The story is all about chaos, but the performance is all about focus, and Ms. O’Donnell hones in like a laser beam. Hedwig, ignored by her mother, abandoned ( and abused?) by her father, deserted by her husband, cheated by her protege` (Tommy Gnosis, who stole her songs and became a rock star) Hedwig fends for herself in a foreign land. She searches for her “other half”, seeking a sense of self-completion in a cruel and prejudiced world. Hedwig has every right to be bitter and scornful, yet she is largely philosophical as she unfolds her sometimes tragic journey.
O’Donnell’s Hedwig is human and appealing. Even when she tells poopy jokes which have that “lost in the translation” quality, she makes it work. (Now we know why Germany is not known for its comedians.) It’s all so preposterous, yet Ms. O’Donnell owns it, and she makes us believers too.
In this Ms. O’Donnell is ably assisted by the magnificent Kerrykate Able, who portrays Hedwig’s current husband, Yitzhak, a renowned Eastern European drag queen. While on tour, Hedwig rescues Yitzhak from the seething politics and strife of the Balkans – with one condition, Yitzhak must never wear a woman’s wig again (he must leave something behind.)
Ms. Able is a joy to watch. Yitzhak has a sneer-soaked look of distain which should be patented. He sulks and spits out profane words (which Hedwig takes for someone calling her own name.) These ladies are smooth pros and they have their interaction down like an old vaudeville routine. Great work.
The music is a perfect blend of glam rock and punk, reflecting the self-indulgent, somewhat bi-polar times which spawned Hedwig’s East German formative years. Alternately repressed and liberated, the touches of 70’s glam star David Bowie and pre-punk Iggy Pop give the production a musical through-line that helps hold the story together and perfectly expresses the “go screw yourself” attitude.
Best of all, the band is beyond solid. These folks know their stuff, and handle it all from cranking guitar and bass solos to the tight drum and keyboard work, not to mention excellent back-up vocals. They can even handle a ballad or two. Kudos to musical director Billy Horn on guitar, Doug Life on bass, Rosie Lorenti on keyboards (and a mean bass) and Ron Helms on drums. Excellent work all around.
And congratulations to ALT Theatre for taking on such a risky business. ALT has pulled in all their markers to get this one up and what is more to get it up to such high standards. Especially notable is the sound equipment from Larry Schuer, the dead-on dialects from Megan Callahan, and Daniel Sheff of Cosmic Fitness who whipped Loraine O’Donnell into such fabulous shape. The set design by David Butler and the video design by Seth Tyler Black give the production an authentic, organic look.
And not least, kudos to director Michael Walline who keeps all the balls in the air. Hedwig could so easily become a dreary drag fest, all wigs and make-up an angry inch thick, but with no soul. Instead Mr. Walline transports the audience to a genuine place, where genuine (if outrageous) people deal with the fundamental questions we will all face at some point in our lives.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH plays through January 28. I recommend it highly and urge you to attend soon, because this show has a high sell-out potential and the ALT Theatre is not a large one.