Hedwig and the Angry Inch: escaping the dungeon of gender, Hart House and rock n roll 24 September 2017.
by Drew Rowsome- Photos by Scott Gorman
"Who thought this beautiful space would be in this old dungeon?" quips Hedwig as she comments on the admittedly Gothic environs of the Hart House Theatre. One-liners? This Hedwig has hundreds of them and James King (Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar) which he fires off with the precision of a seasoned drag queen. The book has been spiced up with topical and local references, all of which are hilarious, and slide seamlessly into the fabric of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There has to be an explanation of how a down on her luck fading glam rocker - "This internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you" - is on a proscenium stage with a slick light show and props instead of in a dank nightclub.
The production values are given a handmade edge - Lauren Taylor (Jesus Christ Superstar) as Yitzhak, Hedwig's husband and combative foil, does make a good show of making sure the props he is charge of work and are cleaned up afterwards - but this Hedwig is stadium, or at least Broadway, ready. Both King and Taylor are very good but they have to work hard to project the underdog status that is crucial to the plot. No matter, the audience loves it - they are there for a lavish musical comedy - and the bleak undertone of Hedwig, at heart a hymn to rock n roll outsiders and the sexually disenfranchised, is drowned in laughter, applause and sing-a-longs.
King is a fetching Hedwig, long gams stretching up to a baby face that toys with Hedwig's basic duality: winking that she is, of course, only joking but then revealing the real pain beneath. He navigates the mood swings and bitter tirades all while maintaining a coy, attention-seeking innocence that makes the sexual double entendres work as patter masking deep anger. And King can sing, shining particularly in the ballads where the sound mix allows room for the lyrics, which are crucial, to be enunciated through the Germanic and feminine accents. This Hedwig is also an able mimic, taking on personas and voices to tell her story, she would much prefer this was a one-person show.
Mayer as well has a strong voice and her, and Yitzhak's, joy when they get to cut loose is a force of nature. But it also points out the one flaw in the show. Neither lead gets to cut loose, exercise rock n roll abandon and fervour, enough. For some reason the band has been mixed to a soft rock/jazz level with flat drums and lots of keyboards over minimal guitars. The resulting blandness of the sonic palette is not as glam rock n roll as a cult figure like Hedwig deserves. The curtain call is held to a booming recording of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" which, even allowing for a recording's superior production values, lifts a middle finger to what has come before.
At one point Hedwig spits beer on the audience and remarks, "That was a rock n roll gesture." It is a funny line but in context points out that this Hedwig is musical theatre and this Hedwig happily sells out as much as Tommy Gnosis. That balances out with director Rebecca Ballarin (7 Stories and, good experience for directing cross-dressing/gendering divas, productions with Pearle Harbour) digging into the text to highlight Hedwig's story and dilemma to the equivalence, and intersection with, the musical numbers. When Hedwig and an intriguingly fragile Tommy Gnosis finally fuse into the whole they have been seeking, it is powerful and a wonderfully twisted happy ending.
Creator John Cameron Mitchell's scrappy little drag project has gone from cult queer curiosity to mainstream entertainment (thank you Neil Patrick Harris). It was fascinating that the gag sing-a-long to "I Put On My Make-up" is now an actual sing-a-long. The stellar songs that Stephen Trask composed for Hedwig and the Angry Inch are undeniably catchy and it is heartening to think they may have become standards. Is Hedwig and the Angry Inch now part of the musical theatre pantheon? This production announces it is and, in these days of non-binary genders and rock n roll irrelevance, there is much to explore in a piece of musical theatre that is not a historical curiosity but now a text to be explored and studied.
This Hedwig and the Angry Inch is exceptionally entertaining and though the glossiness occasionally contradicts the subject matter, there are moments that lance through and elevate. King/Hedwig spits out the lines, "Six inches forward and five inches back/I got a/I got an angry inch," and the individual character's horror slams into place while positing a thousand universal questions. And King nails the bleak optimism of "Wicked Little Town," just a voice and a wig clinging believing in a hope and strength the world denies. The outsider may now be an insider, but Hedwig knows she is still, as she bitterly decries being told, a "freak." And there the musical theatre, and rock n roll, heart of Hedwig and the Angry Inch shines: the harder you try to conform, the less you do, and what makes you a freak also makes you unique, special and, in musical theatre/rock n roll mythology, successful.
Hedwig gets her big finish but she never gets to transcend the dungeon she finds herself in. But she certainly carves out within the beautiful space within, her own unique beauty.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues until Sat, Oct 7 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle. harthouse.ca