Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

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

Coleton Schmitto
In the past few years, Ray of Light Theatre has garnered a wildly enthusiastic and loyal audience that will pack night after night the cavernous Victoria Theatre for excellent, high-quality, and often quite bizarre musicals that the company produces.  Titles like Carrie the Musical, Heathers the Musical, Silence the Musical, Lizzie, Yeast Nation, and Triassic Park are not ones that have shown up on many other – if any – stages in the Bay Area.  The accumulation of stories about murderers, dinosaurs, and vindictive teenagers has led to many local awards and a venue like Victoria Theatre and its near 500-seat capacity being filled with an audience full of buzzing excitement.

In that tradition, Ray of Light Theatre now opens a punk-rock musical about a boy who sacrifices his gender-defining member in order to escape East Germany with the American soldier who claims to love him – all done just before the wall between the two halves of Germany comes tumbling down.  For many years, the 1998 Off-Broadway Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) did not make its way to main stages in the Bay Area; but over the years, there have since been a number of outstanding productions (including Boxcar’s 2012-13 memorable production with 8-12 Hedwigs playing the lead part; the celebrated national, Broadway tour that landed in San Francisco in 2016; and the recent [much touted by this reviewer) The Stage production this past spring in San Jose]).  And now Ray of Light explodes in full fury its own version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in a production brimming with many innovative touches and much on-stage talent but failing in some key ways to measure up completely to the previous, Bay Area productions mentioned above.

Coleton Shmitto and Maya Michal Sherer play gender-fluid Hedwig and her back-up singing husband, Yitzhak, a former drag queen.  The ninety-minute concert format of the show 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. 

With eyes enveloped in blue, lips glistening in sparkling red, and hair dyed blonde and puffy like a giant balloon, Hedwig arrives and begins what at first looks like a stand-up act for a gay nightclub in the Castro.  With lines like “When I think of all the people who I have come upon in my life, I have to think of all the people who have come upon me,” Hedwig rattles off a barrage of bawdy but also folksy comments, bouncing all over the stage and making suggestive contacts with howling members in the audience. 

Hedwig eventually begins to tell her life story, recounting in “Tear Me Down” (with harmonized help from a background-singing Yitzak) how she is like that hated symbol in Berlin, a wall “reviled, graffitied, spit upon.” She sings with strong, intense voice, “Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman.”

Much of Hedwig’s story is told through the biting, no-holes-barred lyrics of Stephen Trask; and there lies one of the major problems of this Ray of Light production.  When the five members of the onstage band, The Angry Inch, accompanying her in roaring-loud, bone-jarring, rock-concert mode, the sung words of Hedwig were more often than not on opening night totally incomprehensible. 

Coleton Schmitto & Members of The Angry Inch
This has been a problem for other productions that I have attended at the Victoria; but in this case, the issue affected understanding the storyline and continued all evening.  Only when Hedwig sang a few songs accompanied by just a keyboard or a lone guitar were her words totally understood (like in the moving and beautifully sung in sweet falsetto, “Wig in a Box”).  For those of us who already knew most songs by heart or at least knew the story itself (from stage and/or film), the sound imbalance may not have been such an issue; but for newcomers to the story (like my companion for the evening), much of the story remained a mystery overall.

Directorial choices in this production also do not measure up to bring out the entire possibilities of the show, in my opinion, again especially when compared to other interpretations I have seen.  Co-directors Sailor Galaviz and Jason Hoover choose to keep the band members themselves mostly anonymous and in their places as a band.  In other productions, band members take on immigrant names and individual punk personas and personalities while playing, singing, and often interacting in song, dance, and bodily contact with Hedwig.  That kind of interaction and energy is largely missing in this production.

That all said, Coleton Schmitto in rip-roaring, raucous style stomps and steps with flair and fling from one side of the massive stage to the other, telling Hedwig’s tale of much woe -- often climbing on speakers or tumbling to the floor.  Hedwig tells how a boy named Hansel born in East Berlin in 1961eventually ends up as female Hedwig, married in 1989 to a U.S. soldier named Luther in Junction City, Kansas.  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 in both conversation and song.

As she tells her story, Hedwig (and/or Yitzhak) becomes other key characters, 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.  When the American soldier Luther sees Hansel sunning himself in the nude, Hedwig recalls their first encounter in “Sugar Daddy,” singing in a string-skirt laced with penny candies of all sorts, “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly roll ... Hey, sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.” 

Coleton Schmitto
Other character transformations are to occur during the rest of Hedwig’s tale of tears, but the greatest character conversion accomplishment of Hedwig and Coleton Schmitto comes late in the show when Hedwig strips away all signs of his feminine self to appear in near 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, Tommy has been heard from time to time blasting forth his own rock concert in a near-by, sold-out Giants ballpark (something we hear thanks to sound engineering of Anton Hedman).  Hedwig bitterly and forlornly believes Tommy has totally forgotten her.  As the stripped-down, sweat-dripping Tommy climbs to the top of a center-stage ladder, Coleton Schmitto now as the rock star finally acknowledges his debt to Hedwig -- a reprise of the song Hedwig earlier sings when she writes it for the then-seventeen-year-old Tommy, “Wicked Little Town.”

Maya Michal Sherer
Throughout the concert/staged story, Hedwig has been joined in back-up by her silent, morose-looking husband Yitzhak, the Jewish ex-drag queen.  In this production, while there is some directed sarcastic comments by Hedwig to Yitzhak (and under-the-breath threats of immigration agents arriving), there is not as much verbal and physical antipathy by Hedwig as I have seen in most other productions, leaving Yitzhak with less of a presence and a defined personality in this particular rendition.  However, when Yitzhak is finally given a chance by Hedwig to don a wig and become the drag queen he longs to be, Maya Michael Sherer delivers the night’s best-sung number in a glorious, gutsy soprano voice as she sings over and again to an arm-waving audience, “Lift up your hands.”

Even with some of the choices and the issues with sound that inhibit the full, net-effect of this powerful musical to be realized, this Ray of Light production does owe much of its energizing impact to people like costume designer Maggie Whitaker, wig designers Amy Bobeda and Becky Motorlodge, and especially lighting designer Joe D’Emilio, whose brilliantly placed spots and lighting choices produced shadowed scenic effects that brought their own script to the storytelling.  Kudos go to them, to the entire production team, the band, and the two principals for the insanely enthusiastic, electrifying efforts given by all for this Ray of Light Theatre offering of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Rating: 3.5 E

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through October 6, 2018 by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://rayoflighttheatre.com/ .

Photos by Alexander Belmont.

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