Dallas — John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s 1998 glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch was groundbreaking on a number of levels—such as that Trask’s music could actually be classified as rock, unlike most rock musicals such as Rent or Hair, which are, to borrow from a line young Hedwig uses in the show, rock in a Broadway idiom. Diane Warren’s oeuvre rocks harder than most of those musicals.
But perhaps what’s most brilliant about the structure of this forward-thinking show, which is currently enjoying a scorchingly sublime production from Uptown Players—directed by Jeremy Dumont and anchored by a balls-out, emotionally raw performance from Kyle Igneczi—is that it cleverly relies on some very old theatrical traditions.
Mitchell and Trask developed the character for years in downtown Manhattan drag and rock clubs before it debuted off-Broadway, with Mitchell as Hedwig and Trask leading the band, called The Angry Inch. They found an ingenious way to detail a complex story about Hansel, a boy in Communist Berlin who finds his way to America thanks to help from a new friend, his mother (who gives him her name, Hedwig) and a surgeon of questionable credentials. Hedwig tells this twisted and touching tale in rock concert format, narrating through improv-like dialogue and song his quest to find love—until he finally realizes that it’s better to give than receive. (Insert tacky Hedwig joke.)
As for Hedwig’s search for his other half, Mitchell took this concept from Plato’s essay Symposium. The song “The Origin of Love” is basically that work boiled down into a gorgeous power ballad. Now we’d call that person whom we all hope to find “The One,” but it’s humbling to remember that Plato put it at one-half, split from us by Zeus’ thunderbolts.
That’s not all that’s Greek about Hedwig. She gives the boy with whom she falls in love while rocking all-you-can-eat buffets in rural Kansas the name Tommy Gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge.” (I’ve always wondered if “Tommy” is a nod to The Who’s concept album Tommy, which is considered the first rock musical.)
And then there’s the art of mask, which certainly wasn’t invented by the Greeks, but was important to their drama. In this case, the masks are Hedwig’s head-wigs, notably a lung-winged blonde number that she wears through much of the show. (In this production, that wig, designed by Coy Covington, is a glorious mix of the one made famous by Mitchell onstage and in the 2001 movie version, and Nurse Ratched.) This concept is best illustrated in the song “Wig in a Box,” in which Hedwig sings about discovering that various kinds of wigs could turn her into different personas, from “Midwest checkout queen” to Farah Fawcett; but it’s also a theme that defines his rock sidekick Yitzhak (Grace Neeley), Hedwig’s husband and a former drag queen. You could even extend that to the band in this production, in which three of the four musicians—conductor/keyboardist/guitarist Scott Eckert, bassist Rick Norman and guitarist Jason Bennett—all wear wigs. (Drummer Justin Labosco goes naked, as it were, with his own hair.)
What’s striking about the mask is when it comes off. In Hedwig, that happens during the blistering song “Exquisite Corpse.” Up until that point, Igneczi has been a beautiful collage of funny, candid, glamulous and fierce. Then it all crashes, as if struck by a lyrical wrecking ball, in one big, glorious meltdown. He embodies the following lyrics more powerfully than any performer that I’ve seen in the role since I witnessed Mitchell do it off-Broadway in 1998 (I didn’t see the 2014 Broadway revival, which closes Sept. 13, the same day Uptown’s production ends).
Inside I'm hollowed out
Outside's a paper shroud
And all the rest's illusion
That there's a will and soul
That we can wrest control
From chaos and confusion
Of course, Hedwig needs more than a lead who is also a natural-born front(wo)man and entertainer (think Wendy O. Williams meets Debbie Harry meets LaBelle-era Nona Hendryx meets David Bowie) and a damn good actor, and Uptown has the goods.
The role of Yitzhak is not to be taken lightly, and Neeley is simply stunning as the man who has willingly taken a backseat to a stronger personality, but slyly lets her desire for the spotlight peek out. In the original production, that doesn’t fully happen until the very end, but with the 2014 Broadway revival, Mitchell made a wise change: The song “The Long Grift” had been sung by the bandleader (Trask onstage and in the movie), but with the new version he gave that song to Yitzhak. Neeley warily begins the number at the center microphone, and makes a believable and cathartic change to blow it out at the end with powerhouse vocals.
Dumont, making his Dallas directing debut (he has previously directed for Casa Mañana Children’s Theatre, and has choreographed all over town) shows a thoughtful understanding of the material. This musical works beautifully on a larger stage like the Kalita Humphreys Theater. It means there’s more space for the band to cover, and Dumont handles it masterfully. With the help of B.J. Cleveland and the cast, they’ve also localized and updated some of the references during Hedwig’s comic bits, especially in the first half of the show.
Tommy Gnosis, who has become a major rock star that makes Hedwig’s inch angrier, plays next door at the American Airlines Center; there’s a deliciously snarky remark about the Kalita’s longtime tenant Dallas Theater Center and their current musical offering; and the fur coat gag—my favorite joke of the show—gets a hilariously topical twist.
I’m still not a fan of the revival’s new orchestration of the song “Sugar Daddy,” which this production uses, but can happily listen to the original cast recording for the original cowpunk version.
Hedwig’s make-up design (by Grace’s sister Laura Neeley) is fabulous, and Derek Whitener and Victor Brockwell’s costumes honor the original looks but have their own personality. Yitzhak’s final outfit is to die for. Bart McGeehon’s set, with collapsed lighting rigs that eventually straighten out, along with Amanda West’s lighting, gives the desired rock spectacle effect. McGeehon’s illustrations for the multimedia projections during “The Origin of Love,” which pays homage to the animated illustrations in the movie, and the way Hedwig handles this onstage, is a genius concept.
A slight criticism is that I wanted the band to be just a bit louder. The sound levels between band and vocalists are probably correct considering it is a musical, but they could still crank it up a few notches. Maybe not all the way to 11, but close.
Hedwig is a remarkable theatrical achievement, and Uptown more than does it justice. This group has really upped their game with musicals in the past few years, and with this, prove they can do the same with an unconventional musical—even if its roots come from a deeper theatrical tradition.
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