In 1972, when David Bowie laudably opted to chuck all pretense at sanity and reincarnate himself as a messianic alien sex god, the gates that kept rock music and the theater apart seemed to be breached. But the problem with Ziggy Stardust was that, once you scraped off the veneer of cool tunes, you were left with little more than a stab at anything like a plot. A "moonage daydream" it might have been, but it stopped making sense in direct ratio to the time it took the drugs to wear off.
Yet Ziggy's breast-swelling sense of possibility and smashed boundaries runs all through Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a bittersweet story about yearning for truth and connection that also legitimately rocks. The result is sexy, twisted, and moving.
The action takes place onstage at the Red Fez Grill, where Hedwig (Jairus Abts), a middling drag-queen rock star, bashes her way through a boozy set backed by a four-piece band and her husband, Yitzhak (Ann Michels). Along the way, she recounts the story of her life: her youth in Berlin, her love with an American military man, her botched sex change, and her rebirth in America writing songs with a lover who has since jilted her and gone supernova (while rejecting poor Hedwig in the tabloids).
Abts is magnetic from the start, in full makeup and aggressive blond wig. His Hedwig is in a reflective mood (ex-lover Tommy Gnosis is playing a triumphant show—apparently on the other side of Lyndale, judging from the cheers piped in whenever Yitzhak opens the stage's side door), which means all manner of inappropriate asides, flashes of cold clarity, and a deep, prevailing sadness that Abts allows in brief, opaque glimpses.
Michels is done up in scruffy dude duds and a fake beard, and her Yitzhak spends much of the evening sullenly glaring at Hedwig from a deep pool of hatred (Yitzhak was once the world's genius drag queen, though Hedwig's condition for bringing him to America was that he drop the drag, lest he outshine our heroine). Michels is a terrific foil for Abts, underscoring Hedwig's bland cruelty, and later shock at the suffering Yitzhak's tormenter has endured.
None of this would work without the music, and composer Stephen Trask provides a solid, sometimes exceptional set of 11 songs that sails with confidence through a hodgepodge of genres. Abts is a solid singer who makes up for his shortcomings with enthusiasm, and Michels adds more confident tones on backup. Abts also sells this stuff emotionally, from the soft and mythic beginning of "The Origin of Love" to the soaring "Midnight Radio" (which cribs mercilessly from "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide").
Usually when theater tries to take on rock, it tends not to (rock, that is), and when rock is infused with theater the result typically lacks the breadth and sophistication needed to tell a compelling story and generate real emotion. Hedwig doesn't succumb to either pitfall. It's brimming with focus and confidence (Joel Sass directs), and it plays on these strengths to give us a peek into the chaotic grandeur of the wide-open heart.
By the end, Abts is stripped of Hedwig's sartorial armor, and Hedwig is divested of both her humor and her venom. After the exhilaration, the kink, and the storytelling that came before, it's an emotional payoff that works. Hedwig's story turns out to be one of longing for connection—with herself, with love, and with the truth that lies beneath her elemental passions. We walk out wishing her nothing less.
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