Dallas — In the 19 years since its birth, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the joint creation of playwright John Cameron Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask, has evolved from cutting-edge off-Broadway show to movie to big Broadway production to, at last, that final descent into bourgeois respectability, the national tour. In this final form (unless there’s a remake of the movie or, God forbid, a sitcom in the works), it opened a weeklong run at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House Tuesday night.
Fortunately, the patina of respectability only slightly tarnishes the shocking counter-cultural premise of the show. (Don’t expect President Obama to take his daughters, and be assured Vice President Pence and his entourage will never show up in the audience of Hedwig, at least not on purpose). But even if success, the passing of years, and the inevitable evolution of society and musical style has softened some of the impact of Hedwig, the magnificent entanglement of ancient myth, personal catastrophe, and old-fashioned rock show energy continues to shine.
The immediate success and enduring appeal of Hedwig comes from its marriage of genres: the audience can never be quite sure whether this is a rock concert, rock opera, standup comedy, drag show, one-actor drama, or, for that matter, musical comedy. And that’s a good thing, giving a subtle dream-like aura to the whole business. (Indeed, the subject matter itself and occasional mention of dreams in the script suggest that what we’re seeing is, indeed, merely a complex dream, perhaps of a gender-ambiguous child or adolescent.) This ambiguity of genre bevels nicely, of course, with the show’s primary premise of the precarious and tragic nature of gender identity.
The show belongs without question to Hedwig her/himself, portrayed in this production by Euan Morton, who bounces, bounds, roars, and plays off the audience brilliantly—frighteningly bitchy and occasionally butch as we walk, sometimes laughing, through the minefield of gender politics. Hannah Corneau winningly portrays defiant submission as Hedwig’s abused partner Yitzhak, contributing her part (in a cross-dressed role) to a headspinning morass of gender and sexual roles.
The band, the Angry Inch, is the same foursome from the 2014 Broadway production: Justin Craig, Matt Duncan, Tim Mislock and Dylan Fusillo. (The Tony-nominated sound designer, Tim O'Heir, is a Richardson resident.)
Michael Mayer’s staging is somewhere between open-mic night and oratorio, in a setting by Julian Crouch combining junkyard and small-town coffee house, with a haunting EXIT sign looming in back. As in any good drag show, the wigs (by Mike Potter) and costumes (by Arianne Phillips) are essential and outrageous.
The song list is strong, with no bad numbers and at least two works that deserve a place in the great American songbook—a pretty good record for any musical. “The Origin of Love” is nothing short of a poetic and musical masterpiece, marrying an initially gentle (but eventually violent) folk-rock style with an ancient and fundamental truth of gender and eroticism enshrined in Plato’s Symposium—a truth that western Judeo-Christian civilization has desperately ignored and oppressed for 2000 years.
Mitchell and Trask manage, later in the script, to meld this ancient concept into the Adam-and-Eve creation myth, like a child confusing a Greek mythology picture book with a Sunday school lesson. The song “Wig in a Box” likewise strikes an unforgettable chord of the magic role recorded music and the mental fantasies it creates play in our culture and in our personal lives.
The profound undercurrent is profusely decorated with a painful, squirm-inducing story of a botched sex-change operation against a backdrop of Cold War politics, a bleak middle-American town near an army base, and that pivotal moment in history when the Berlin Wall came down. That was still fresh from the headlines when Hedwig debuted in 1998 and is suddenly echoing again in the haphazard and bizarre chess game currently playing out in international affairs.
In 1998, Hedwig was at the front edge of a revolution of gender mores that progressed with sometimes surprising speed over the ensuing years. Though we’ve discovered, as of 2017, that the revolution isn’t over, those of us on the right side of history might take some comfort that Hedwig has moved from an off-Broadway theater to opera houses in the middle of America.