By Barry Reszel
Hedwig‘s got buzz.
It might be for its 2014 Tony accolades: eight nominations and four awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Or perhaps it’s because NPH (Neil Patrick Harris)—that cute, grown up Doogie Howser—was the show’s Broadway star. Wasn’t he just great as the Tony’s emcee jumping through that Pippin ring?
And then the nice, handsome young man from Glee! (Darren Criss) took his spot and even started out the national tour in San Francisco.
So specifically for folks who bought a Broadway in Chicago subscription to get into Hamilton this lifetime or because they swooned over last year’s Sound of Music tour (who didn’t?) and nodded at least once reading the paragraphs above, consider this review more of a public service announcement.
Because without doing any pre-show research regarding Hedwig and the Angry Inch, patrons might not know:
Yes…it’s angry inch not itch. That’s the result of a botched gender reassignment surgery leaving Hansel-now-Hedwig’s surgically constructed vagina with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh between her legs, “with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face.”
This is undeniably a rock musical. In addition to being the title of the show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also the name of the band whose concert the audience attends. It’s through this vehicle headliner Hedwig tells her life story between songs. And while there are a few exceptions (“Wicked Little Town,” “Midnight Rodeo”) most of the music reflects androgynous 1970s glam rock style of David Bowie, who co-produced the Los Angeles production.
“Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Know that the script for Hedwig matches The Book of Mormon “fuck” for “fuck.” In addition, it includes every possible oral sex double entendre and blowjob euphemism. (Sometimes it’s remarkably freeing to write for a private website instead of a family newspaper.)
For those still reading—and, truly, no judgment either way—there are undeniable highlights amid this chaotic life story where gender ambiguity is far from the only challenge.
The first is a story sculpted to the venue. Hedwig, an East German rock singer, tells the audience of life’s hardships during this one-night-only concert at “the beautiful Oriental Theatre at the request of Producer Bobby Nederlander” because of the sudden closing (“last night at intermission”) of Hurt Locker: The Musical. Scattered Hurt Locker Playbills adorn the floor—a nice touch.
With a mouth that would make the raunchiest stand up comics blush, Hedwig jokes her way through her painful tale—an “internationally ignored song stylist” with an unaffectionate mother. Her former boyfriend-thought-soulmate, Tommy, stole the hit songs they wrote together, went on to rock superstardom and just happens to be playing a sold out concert at Soldier Field, which at times is accessed via the Oriental’s stage door. Husband Yitzhak, the only other named character, happens to be part of “The Angry Inch” band. He’s a drag queen forbidden by Hedwig from dressing as he desires because “he has to give up something.”
Euan Morton‘s portrayal of mostly unlikable Hedwig is terrifically sad, raw and extraordinarily well sung. This reviewer prefers not waiting until a show’s closing minutes for some hint of redemption, but that’s on the show’s authors (book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask). It’s no doubt a demanding role, for which Morton is more than equipped.
Hannah Corneau, last seen in Chicagoland as Marriott Theatre’s Eva Peron in 2016’s production of Evita, is splendid as Yitzak, the benefactor of Hedwig’s ultimate understanding and transformation. Corneau’s intoning Whitney Houston‘s “I Will Always Love You” is a musical highlight, particularly for the non-hard rock loving sect.
The fictional rock band, “The Angry Inch,” is made up of the same musicians who played the Broadway run. Justin Craig, (guitars, keyboards), Matt Duncan, (bass, guitars, keyboards), Tim Mislock (guitar) and Peter Yanowitz (drums) are splendid musicians all.
What began as a risqué cabaret act, Hedwig morphed into a 1998 off-Broadway cult hit and 2001 film before finally hitting the Great White Way to acclaim in 2014. A full plot summary and development/production history may be read here.
The bottom line is that it’s an enlightening, R-rated, undeniably sad dive into the realities of a complex, uncommon, uncomfortable life.
The buzz is well deserved.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” through March 19 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.