Friday, October 7, 2016

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell (Book); Stephen Trask (Music & Lyrics)

Darren Criss as Hedwig
As one of the most recently anticipated arrivals of a major touring musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch explodes in full fury on the SHN Golden Gate stage with two hometown stars reprising their celebrated roles from Broadway.  Darren Criss and Lena Hall play gender-fluid Hedwig and her back-up singing husband, Yitzhak, a former drag queen, as they each take John Cameron Mitchell’s book and Stephen Trask’s music/lyrics and bring their own electric, ecstatic, and erotic interpretations to this 1998 Off-Broadway, 2014 Broadway hit.  The result is a ninety-minute concert that mixes bawdily funny stand-up comedy, wildly athletic and sex-packed choreography, and super-charged rock numbers to tell a bizarre but beautiful story of two people seeking to find peace in who they are, individually and together.

Arriving in high-heeled boots and doubled-sided hair that falls to her waist, Hedwig pounds her way over the top of a parked car and blasts proudly her opening “Tear Me Down” in full rock style.  “I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two ... I made it over the great divide, now I’m coming for you,” she thunders.  Peppering her story with audience member flirting, with references to the Bay Area, and with risqué, rude, and racy one-liners galore, Hedwig tells how a boy named Hansel born in East Berlin in 1961eventually ends up as female Hedwig, now married to a U.S. soldier named Luther in Junction City, Kansas in 1989.  That Hansel had to have a botched sex change operation to escape the Iron Curtain (“Six inches forward and five inches back ... I got an angry inch”) and that Luther finds a boyfriend and leaves his bride trailer-park-poor on their first anniversary (the same day the Berlin wall came down) is only part of the sad tale Hedwig relates.

Still to come in her story is an awakening in the midst of her abandoned misery of the outrageously glamor insider her (“Wig in a Box”); a newfound soul-mate named Tommy who is seventeen, cute, and musically talented (“Wicked Little Town”); and a new drag-queen husband (Yitzhak) who has to give up with lingering resentment her own wig and gown to be Hedwig’s new life companion.  Oh, and she also forms a band called “The Angry Inch,” performing in coffee houses and cheap auditoria while trailing after that Tommy who is now a major rock star using the songs she wrote with him to secure his fame.

Darren Criss
Darren Criss brings a thousand ways to bend, stretch, pump, and bump his trim, muscled body while singing his way through Hedwig’s tale full of debauchery and disappointment.  Wearing the often outlandish, sometimes totally sexy outfits designed by Arianne Phillips and donning hair styles designed by Mike Potter that recall everything that was awful about the ‘80s and 90s, Mr. Criss knows how to arouse an audience to a titillating pitch.  What he does with a microphone – either on its erect stand or just tied to the rope of its cord – is enough to cause every gay man or straight woman to break into sweat.  He is at his best when singing in full rock star voice the songs Stephen Trask has written that recall sounds of the 1970s of glam rocker David Bowie, puck rockers Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and even the ballads of the Beatles. 

But rarely does Hedwig just stand at a mike and sing.  She prances and high kicks in massively heeled boots, slides and tumbles across the floor, and climbs up and down the side-stage speakers  – all the time selling her songs with power and pizzazz.  Lines like “I put on some make up, turn up the eight-track ... I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf” roll out of Hedwig’s entire being; and the crowd eats them and her up in near-frenzied response.

As Hedwig spills forth her life’s story, she often takes on the persona of other key characters as she interacts with them, starting with her East German mother who insisted then-son Hansel practice his singing with head in the oven in order not to disturb her. (This is accomplished hilariously on Julian Crouch’s designed stage by Hedwig putting her head under the hood of the center-stage, rusting wreck of a car.)  When the soldier Luther sees Hansel sunning himself in the nude, Hedwig recalls their first encounter in “Sugar Daddy,” singing in tempting, luring voice, “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly roll ... Hey, sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.”  Hedwig then becomes the deep-voiced, American Luther who wants Hansel to be his lady-boy, leading eventually to his mother and Luther convincing him to undergo the sex-altering operation as a ticket to marriage to Luther, freedom from the Communists, and a flight to the coveted U.S.

Darren Criss, Now as Tommy Gnosis
But the greatest character conversion accomplishment of Hedwig and Darrin Criss comes late in the show when Hedwig strips away all signs of his feminine self to appear in the birthday suit to which he was born, morphing into Tommy Gnosis, the now-stage name of the teenage boy he once taught to sing.  Throughout Hedwig’s show on this supposedly seedy stage, Tommy has been blasting forth his own rock concert in a near-by, sold-out AT&T Park.  Hedwig bitterly and forlornly believes Tommy has totally forgotten her.  As the stripped-down, sweat-dripping Tommy on stage, Darrin Criss delivers his most poignant, best song of the night as the singer finally acknowledges his debt to Hedwig -- a reprise of the song Hedwig earlier sings when she writes it with the seventeen-year-old Tommy, “Wicked Little Town.”

Lean Hall as the Transformed Yitzhak
Throughout the concert/staged story, Hedwig has been joined in back-up by her silent, morose-looking husband Yitzhak, the Jewish ex-drag queen whom Hedwig abuses with sarcastic comments but who renders beautifully clear notes of soprano to harmonize with Hedwig’s own male voice.  Lena Hall altogether proves why she won the 2014 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her Yitzhak, both in an initial brief, but beautifully breathy time at the microphone in “The Long Grift,” but particularly in the show’s finale.  Once Hedwig finds some peace after Tommy has acknowledged on stage her contribution to his fame, she gives back to Yitzhak his drag persona, leading the drag queen to emerge in a glorious take-over from Hedwig of the finale, “Midnight Radio.”  Lena Hall lets loose in a high soprano voice that literally shakes the rafters of the Golden Gate Theatre as she sings over and again to a now-standing audience, “Lift up your hands.”

The Full Cast of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
Also important to the entire evening’s energy and musical dynamism are the four members of the onstage band, The Angry Inch.  Each takes on an immigrant name and persona while playing, singing, and often interacting in song, dance, and bodily contact with Hedwig.  Musical Director, keyboardist, and guitarist Justin Craig is Skszp; bass and guitarist Matt Duncan, Jacek; guitarist Tim Mislock, Krzyzhtoff; and drummer Peter Yanowitz, Schlatko.

Michael Mayer has ensured as director that there is not much pause to catch one’s breath in the near-frantic sequences of comedy, song, electric music, and costume/wig changes that occur in Hedwig’s storytelling.  The animation of Phosphene and John Bair adds bigger-than-life, totally fantastical dimensions to Hedwig’s songs and story, especially the double-layered screening in “The Origin of Love.”  And throughout the evening from first notes to final frenzy, the lighting of Kevin Adams and the sound of Tim O’Heir provide phenomenal effects that dazzle and electrify.

Sometimes Hedwig’s interaction with audience does become a bit too cutsey and too much like a cheap, Reno casino show, causing some energy loss to the show in general.  And while Darrin Criss excels through 99% of his incredible rendering, there are a few times his vocals flatten with not quite the pitch to pull off the moment.  But in the end, these become minor points that are quickly forgotten and may be also due to opening night over-excitement.

As brassy and ballsy, crude and crass, and as over-the-top and outlandish that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, Darrin Criss and Lena Hall ensure that the heart, the poignancy, and the uplifting message of the musical totally are the final memory.  Two people journey through many hard times trying to find a place in their own souls where acceptance of self and of each other can be found.  On the stage of SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, Hedwig and Yitzhak find their peace.

Rating: 5 E

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through October 30, 2016, at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus and Steven Underhill

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