As a fan of the 2001 movie of the same name, I was excited to finally see Hedwig and the Angry Inch live and as written by James Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask.
“This groundbreaking Obie-winning Off-Broadway smash also won multiple awards for its hit film adaptation. It tells the story of “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig Schmidt, a fourth-wall smashing East German rock ‘n’ roll goddess who also happens to be the victim of a botched sex-change operation, which has left her with just “an angry inch.” This outrageous and unexpectedly hilarious story is dazzlingly performed by Hedwig (née Hansel) in the form of a rock gig/stand-up comedy routine backed by the hard-rocking band “The Angry Inch.” Using songs and monologues, Hedwig tells her story, which began in the former East Berlin where as Hansel he meets Luther, an American GI who promises to take the young man to the States on the condition that he switch his sex. After the bungled operation, Luther abandons newly named Hedwig in a Kansas trailer park, where she turns to music and meets geeky Tommy Speck, whom she takes under her wing and soon falls for. Tommy steals her songs, achieves rock star fame, and Hedwig is once again cast aside. She decides to demand redress and stalks Tommy’s world tour, performing in the T.G.I. Fridays that are situated next door to his stadiums. Hedwig describes her life’s search for “The Origin of Love” and her other half. It’s a rocking ride, funny, touching, and ultimately inspiring to anyone who has felt life gave them an inch when they deserved a mile.”- as billed on Dramatist Play Service
reTHEATER is a new non-profit theatre company in Philly that’s mission is to
reimagine great shows and to realize new ones. Through the re-invention and re-examination of ideas we strive to create unique theater going experiences for our audiences.”
With Hedwig and the Angry Inch, they very much stayed true to their mission.
Transforming the Ruba Club in Northern Liberties to a Berlin dive bar was innovative. Ruba always acts as a bar (cash only) so that element was nice for the average theatre goer like myself. Designer Scott McMaster must have gone into every old attic around town to come up with all the trinkets and décor to really give us a snapshot an old dive. A dozen old TVs, candy strewn about, gummy bear lanterns, spray paint, wooden planks, army figures, cartoon cutouts, among a dozen other accoutrements decorated the stage, the theatre, AND the lobby–including a program (Playbill) that is a newspaper giving us a little backstory. Intermixed with the design was a simple yet effective lighting plot by designer Alyssandra Dougherty. Her mix of intelligent lighting with standard light source and spotlight was highly effective. At every twist and turn you felt like you were at a real rock concert. In many aspects we were. She also focused in on several intimate moments throughout the show to assist the story line from real time to stage.
The premise of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is intended to be a 90-minute, one act musical monologue between Hedwig and her audience. reTheater’s production, as directed by Josh Hitchens, was a long 2 hours and 20 minutes, and that included a 20-minute late start to the show. As indicated in their mission, they want to re-create theatre. Leading the helm as Hedwig is popular drag entertainer Braden Chapman who on most weekends can be found playing drag diva Mimi Imfurst. He clearly has the history behind him to adorn Hedwig’s wig and bring the character to life. Chapman was very effective in his story telling, however there was so much off-script material that it was truly hard to determine what year we were in. The libretto references the Berlin Wall coming down during Hedwig’s coming of age story, and that was in 1989. However, the material presented to us throughout the entire evening was pop culture of today, nearly 30 years later. For example, we are introduced to Hedwig while wearing a giant cape adorned with “Fuck Trump.” Other than the several additions and asides (a “too soon” joke about Southwest Airlines included), the production didn’t stray too far off course to be considered a re-imagining.
Perhaps they considered the costumes and wigs to be fresh as Hedwig did not adorn the standard corn yellow wig that should be an homage to Farrah Fawcett. The costumes were designed by Music Director Bobby Goodrich. A wonderful hipster dress constructed of old men’s plaid button down shirts was clever and fun to watch during Hedwig’s every turn. Playing Hedwig’s husband, Yitzhak, is Stephanie C. Kernisan, whose vocals are through the stratosphere and portrayal of a man is jaw-dropping, including full shaved head. Her attire was completely believable with oversized jeans, exposed arms, and doc martens. On the other side, all the musicians play the band on “The Angry Inch” therefore are all in costume. These characters’ costumes were a bit of a stretch–bad wigs, distracting hair colors, and clothing that didn’t embrace the musician wearing them. One of them looked like Howard Stern wishing he was in the Lonely-Hearts Club Band.
Chapman and Kernisan delivered spectacular character arcs and their musicality was on point–especially in the final “act.” The first third of the production proved difficult to hear and follow during musical numbers. Either the band was too loud or the mics were. Luckily, I am well-versed in the score, as was the entire audience as indicated by singing along. But, the Hedwig newbie who accompanied me was challenged to follow along the way. If you attend the evening like you’re going to a rock concert of your favorite artist, you will have no issue. If you attend to watch as standard musical theatre, you may have a difficult time settling in. The band* is exceptional and engaging throughout.
The videography and projections, as designed by Chapman and Margus Neal Gordon, were a lovely addition. Intertwining some imagery from the movie with historic musical moments from the 70s and beyond to the Berlin Wall coming down was just what the production needed to assist in storytelling.
Shortcomings aside, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an exciting night out. The audience was captivated and probably could have stayed another 2 hours. Chapman kept the night interactive and the “Hed-heads” ate up every morsel of sugar daddies being tossed about! It’s a perfect addition to June’s Pride Month in Philly and I was happy to finally see it live.
Side note: bring a sweater! Ruba Club was extremely cold to prevent the performers from overheating.
Check out reTheater.org for details. Chapman announced at curtain call that the production has been extended until June 30th.
Paul Severe Harlan (Guitar)
Robert Covello (Guitar)
E.J. Simpson (Bass)
Tucker Marshall (Drums)