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REVIEW: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," – Ophelia's Jump Productions

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Hedwig – “I put on some make-up, turn on the 8-track, and I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf - suddenly I'm Miss Punk Rock Star of Stage and Screen and I ain't ever turning back!”

Brilliantly innovative, heartbreaking, and wickedly funny, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is the landmark, gender-bending musical sensation by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask that is shamelessly enjoyable. Integrated with a pulsing score and electrifying performances, it tells the story of one of the most unique characters to ever hit the stage.

As Mitchell and Trask’s spellbinding two-actor rock musical memoir, there is no other show quite like it, and I doubt there ever will be, given that it came about in the mid-90s and retained that twisted grunge-style indicative of the decade. The music is steeped in the androgynous 1970’s glam rock style of David Bowie, as well as the work of Nirvana, John Lennon and early punk performers, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

Originally directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and starring Tony Award-nominee Euan Morton, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" played to record-breaking sell-out crowds Off-Broadway in 1998, then was reincarnated on Broadway in 2014, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival. The character, Hedwig Robinson, was the brainstorm of Mitchell’s family babysitter, who also moonlighted as a prostitute in her trailer park home in Junction City, Kansas. In the stage original, the entire show is performed as a rock concert in a single act, with Hedwig, backed by his band The Angry Inch (“the ambassadors of Eastern Bloc Rock”), telling his story along with clever stage banter (“I tried singing once back in Berlin. They threw tomatoes. After the show, I had a nice salad.”)

Ophelia’s Jump Productions’ recent successful run of the witty, glam-rock musical featuring the transgender rock singer as she follows rock-star Tommy Gnosis’ tour around the country, just closed this past Sunday, April 14th, after four sold-out weekends. The raw-energy show was directed by Caitlin Lopez and starred Michael Davanzo as the formidable frontman, Hedwig, and Janelle Kester as Yitzhak. The band, in this staging, featured Music Director Sean Alexander Bart on keyboard and vocals, Jay Hemphill on bass, the great Zak Ryan on drums, and Alec de Kervor and Dylan Groengerg on guitar. Hedwig’s back-up singer, her ambiguously gendered occasional lover from Croatia, winningly performed by Ms. Kester, also had vocal power that was truly amazing.

I doubt you’d know anyone quite like Hedwig personally. She is, after all, an East German “slip of a girly boy” who undergoes a botched back alley sex operation only to endure a painful life of loneliness in America, eventually becoming a third-rate rock star. Still, it was difficult to watch this show without finding moments of her journey resonating on some emotional avenue of life. Hedwig, who becomes the self-professed “internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you,” is an underdog if there ever was one – and we all know what that feels like. The show had a personal, emotional touch that is so remarkable, it entices you to engage in an unexpected way, inspiring critics and audiences alike to lift up their hands and cheer.

A quick recap of the story: Hedwig grew up in East Berlin before the wall came down. In order to escape a Communist life, he married American Army man Luther, but to do so, he had to give up a little part of himself. That’s where the Angry Inch comes in. Once in America, the marriage dissolves, he ends up in that same Kansas trailer park, performing with the band at any dive with a salad bar, kindling a singing career of her own and chasing Tommy (a one-time lover), the kid that Hedwig transformed into a stadium-filling mega rock star.

Mr. Davanzo kept us engaged with him throughout the hour and half, intermissionless show. He had the perfect amount of androgyny, and the vocal chops and the emotional clarity to pull off gut-wrenching songs like “Wicked Little Town” and the eerily beautiful poetry of “The Origin of Love.” That song, like the entire show, is inspired by Plato’s Symposium, which posits that humans were originally created as two people fused together, and then split in half by the gods, and therefore have to search for their other half until they find that person—if they’re lucky enough to ever achieve that. That elemental message is part of what drives the emotion and motivation of the characters.

As the show goes along, Hedwig grows a bit wearier, physically and emotionally, as she sheds her skin in the gloriously angsty “Exquisite Corpse,” putting it all out there to the audience in a pensive exposé. By the end, she's as mentally exhausted as someone who has just ran their first marathon, collapsing on the ground just after the finish line.

There's plenty of heartbreak here, not only of the artistic but also the romantic kind, as Yitzhak adds all the right layers with a jealous edge and an urgency to the plot. Both of them struggle in their joint searches for success, imperiled as much by their questionable self-esteem as they are by the controversy that initially put them in the spotlight.

The songs fuse native American pop, folk, and country with European glam rock, which was a very interesting mix, in fact. None quite matches the addictive appeal of the wistfully empowering "Wig in a Box," however, or the coffeehouse "The Origin of Love." Even with the hardcore "Angry Inch," Trask's score is mind-bending and often searing in the delivery.

Decked out in a wig that seemed to be a combination of Farrah Fawcett morphed with Tina Turner, Mr. Davanzo expertly wields the character's latent vulnerability to stop you from losing sight of the frightened girl beneath the getup. He may not make you forget the reserved intensity of Mitchell, who created the role onstage and preserved it in the 2001 film version, but his aching sweetness and deft ad-libbing draws you in.

Hedwig was, and still is, way ahead of its time. But despite the layers of makeup and wigs she wears, Hedwig’s overall look comes across still rough, broken and bitter. Her outer layers are all a façade, a mask to hide the pain.

While transgender issues have become more mainstream, this show’s stark lead being characterized as an undefinable gender is still a shocking topic to some. The overarching message is that to find love, you must first accept every part of yourself. Thus, Hedwig’s journey is essentially a quest for individuality.

The musical starts out seeming like stand-up comedy, filled with eye-rolling raunchy cheap jokes that deserve, and often receive, rim shots. She is a metaphorical character in many ways – her opening line is, “I’m the new Berlin Wall. Try to tear me down!”

But halfway through it, everything suddenly becomes more real. It switches to an unexpected love story with the pounding sounds of rock slowly giving voice to a painful past. Given her background, it should come as no surprise that Hedwig’s off-color humor is her go-to defense mechanism, a way of coping with, and surviving an ordeal of failure, heartbreaks, and alienation.

Hedwig’s ending is also a source of some speculation. Its ultimate interpretation, it seems, is up to us. Just as Hedwig must decide what her purpose in life is, we too have to decide what the last moment means for us. Doing so forces us to change our perceptions and perhaps find the healing we all seek for ourselves.

For further information about this show, please inquire at: Caitlin Lopez serves as not only the Director, but Assoc. Artistic/Improv Director. The Scenic Designer was Beatrice Casagran (also the Founding Artistic Director), Projections were handled by Sheila Malone, Lighting Design managed by Raymond Jones and Costume and Hair Design was by Janelle Kester. Makeup was performed by Dani Bustamante, Managing Director is Nicki Heskin and C.E.O. is Randy Lopez.

This show has been rated Ultra Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

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