Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Those who know Hedwig will understand when I say that the show is meant to be dressed downway downin tawdry surroundings, looking like any moment some municipal inspector could come along and shut the thing down. It must be performed by talented actor-musicians, of course, but they must seem to be escaping through a coating of insecurity-fueled posturing. It must have the power to break your heart, not only because of its turbulent story, but because Hedwig, the person at the core of the matter, appears to be so bravely strutting her denial around the stage.
Last year, the national tour of Hedwig an the Angry Inch, spawned by the huge success of the Tony winning Broadway production starring Tony winning Neal Patrick Harris, played for a week at the Ordway. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but with disclaimers. Hedwig is not intended to set up residence in a hall as steeped in mainstream elegance as the Ordway. Further, to fill the large space of the Ordway, the volume was too loud, obscuring many sung lyrics and even spoken lines, and the lights too harshly glaring, creating sequences when the stage could not be look upon at all. The Ordway is a beautiful jewel in our metro area's cultural crown, and I was grateful that the Ordway gave the Hedwig tour a local berth. But for all that, the show is much more in its element at the Camp Bar's Cabaret Theater.
And that is where I recently found Hedwig, the "internationally ignored song stylist," her husband Yitzhak, and her band, The Angry Inch. With forced efforts to exhibit gracefulness, Hedwig (Alec Schroeder) climbs onto the tiny stage (she calls it "the size of an Oreo cookie") and launches into the ferocious opening number, "Tear Me Down." Is it loud? Oh, yeah! But it does not have to be so amped up in the tiny Cabaret Theater that the lyrics become mush. I could understand every jagged word. Hedwig and her Angry Inch band members are close enough to tie one another's shoes, with Yitzhak (Tanya Porter) trying to maintain a distance in what passes for the far corner, a scowl fixed on her face, with deep eyes constantly glaring at Hedwig.
Hedwig had been a frail, teenage boy named Hansel, living with his mother in cold war East Germany and aching to discover if the missing half of his existence, as described in the beautiful musical fable "The Origin of Love, would be male or female. The answer seemed to be American serviceman Luther, who looked down from his watch at the Berlin Wall and spied Hansel sunbathing. Luther wasn't aiming for a male partner, so his proposal of marriage was contingent on Hansel agreeing to a surgical solution. As Hansel's mother told him, "to get away you have to leave something behind." But the surgery goes awry and instead of going from penis to vagina, Hanselnow Hedwighas only an inch-high mound of flesh to work with ("Angry Inch"). Luther moves Hedwig to Kansas, but soon Hedwig is on her own, eking out a living with babysitting gigs, keeping her spirits up with singing and fantasy personas ("Wig in a Box").
Feeling trapped in her "Wicked Little Town", Hedwig allows her heart and her angry inch to be won over by a teenage Jesus freak named Tommy Speck. Hedwig grooms Tommy into a rock and roll god, changing his name to Tommy Gnosis (Greek for knowledge), sure that Tommy is her missing half. Ah, but the Hedwigs of the world have trouble with happy endings. Along the way she meets female-to-male Yitzhak, with a piercing soprano, who begs Hedwig to let him join her entourage, only to become the dart board unto which Hedwig directs her own self-loathing barbs.
Alec Schroeder is phenomenal as Hedwig. She has the strong, gutsy voice to deliver Hedwig's songs, easily veering from confessional to escapist in tone. Her self-deprecating anecdotes, raunchy banter with the audience and her band, nasty verbal attacks on Yitzhak, and obviously false bravado all seem to stem from lived experience. She is fleshier than other Hedwigs I have seen, so that as her costumes get skimpier, her vanity increasingly goes out the window. She is showcasing nothing, but in this for real.
As for Yitzhak, Tonya Porter is a steely presence throughout most of the show, projecting her intense inner pain without saying a word, until an unexpected turn allows her draw upon her repressed warmth and shine brightly. Her strong, eerily high-toned voice makes sublime backup for Porter's Hedwig. The two actors are also listed as co-directors, staging the show as a tightly woven emotional arc.
The four members of the Angry Inch band play their instruments like demons, treating the score like the rock set that it is. They each respond playfully to Hedwig's mock gestures of seduction, and look on with concern when Hedwig goes into tailspin. Especially given their close quarters with the show's diva, they are a part of the action, and not merely playing behind it.
Alec Schroeder put her canny sense of what makes Hedwig tick into her wig and makeup design, so important for this show. Artistic Associate Emma Schroder has created costumes that capture Hedwig's striving to make something spectacular of the mess with her psyche, with a lumpen proletariat look for Yitzhak. Nicholas Gosen's sound design is terrific for this small venue, giving the music the required high volume without obscuring its soaring melodic sweep, and also creating an apt roar coming from the concert hall next door where, ostensibly, superstar Tommy Gnosis is playing to thousands of screaming fans. Gosen also designed the lighting, which dims and brightens to match Hedwig's mercurial moods.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a show for everyone, certainly not for those who disdain loud rock music, or are uncomfortable with frank sexual banter, or unable to cope with fluid barriers among the genders. On the other hand, for those who enjoy loud rock music, have no qualms with talk about sex, and understand that male and female are as much cultural constructs as biological imperatives, this is a great show, and an important one. The artists of Zenith City Horror have mounted it with talent, heart and guts, and in exactly the right place. It won't be here much longer, so catch it while you can.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, presented by Zenith City Horror in association with Actors Theater of Minnesota, continues through November 26 2017, at Camp Bar Cabaret Theater, 490 North Robert Street, St. Paul MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $30.00. For tickets and information go to actorsmn.org.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell; Music and Lyrics: Stephen Trask; Directors: Alec Schroeder and Tonya Porter; Music Director: Nathan Olson Jacek; Costume Design - Production Artistic Associate: Emma Schroeder; Hair and Makeup Design: Alec Schroeder; Light and Sound Design: Nicholas Gosen; Production Stage Manager: Austin Schoenfelder; Company Manager: Joe Morales.
Cast: Tonya Porter (Yitzhak), Alec Schroeder (Hedwig). The Angry Inch: Kyle Gondik-Anderson (Bass, Vocals) Nathan Olson Jacek (Keyboard, Vocals), Jeff Ross (Guitar, Vocals), Sam Williams (Drums, Vocals).