Chicago Theatre Review
A Touching, Tearful Story
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Broadway in Chicago
Be warned: This may not be the sort of entertainment that will appeal to every taste. Audiences who attend this four-time, 2014 Tony Award winning musical will be assaulted by deafening rock music, blinding concert lights and 90 minutes of adult humor and backstory. The theatergoer who considers Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe to be the hallmarks of the American musical probably won’t love a show that’s this garish and loud. However, younger audiences and devotees of this cult musical will find everything to love about this National Tour, now playing in Chicago for only two weeks.
The show began as a modest little rock musical that told the story of a young, gay singer who had undergone a botched gender reassignment surgery. The piece opened Off-Broadway at the tiny Jane Street Theatre in 1998, where it played for two years. The show imagined that this East German would-be rocker, who had relocated to the USA, was touring the country with a band and his boyfriend backup singer, Yitzhak. Since they were relatively unknown, and only a third-rate musical group, at best, it was conceivable that they were destined to play small, out-of-the-way venues, such as this one. John Cameron Mitchell, the show’s book writer, originated the title role. Stephen Trask, who composed the music and lyrics, also provided the onstage accompaniment, The Angry Inch, with his own band, Cheater. The production went on to win the Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical.
When New York director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”) staged the Broadway revival at the larger Belasco Theatre, the modest concert musical became a full-scale production. He reimagined the show as bigger and flashier. It was written into the revised script that, since another Broadway musical entitled “Hurt Locker: the Musical” had closed the previous day before it had even completed its first performance, the Belasco was available. Using the leftover sets and special effects, Hedwig and the Angry Inch took over the stage the following evening. Neil Patrick Harris headlined as Hedwig (for which he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical), and was succeeded by other name performers, such as Darren Criss, Taye Diggs, Andrew Rannells, Anthony Rapp and Michael C. Hall.
Now, in its National Tour, Mayer’s premise for this production remains essentially the same: the “Hurt Locker” musical has recently closed leaving an unexpected opening at this particular theatre. Part of the problem is that the Oriental Theatre, and one suspects most of the venues around the country where this show will play, is just too big for a show that’s sharing such an intimate, personal story. Even the show’s Broadway home was smaller. Through a playlist of loud, often difficult to understand rock songs, Hedwig shares his life story through music. However, it’s his heartfelt, quietly spoken reminisces that speak loudest and feel the most honest.
As Hedwig, Scottish actor Euan Morton is excellent. Known on Broadway primarily for his portrayal of Boy George in the biographical musical, “Taboo,” as well as appearances in such shows as “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Morton makes the role entirely his own. Strutting around the stage in wickedly high heels, tight mini skirts and an array of gigantic blond wigs, Morton commands most of the musical and emotional challenges of the play. Watching Morton running up and down stairs and scrambling with easer over the shell of a bombed-out automobile, part of the scenic remains from the “Hurt Locker,” is a tribute to the actor’s physical dexterity. However humorous, Euan Morton’s finest moments come in the quieter moments when he’s telling us Hedwig’s touching, often tearful story of his past.
We learn that he was originally a handsome little boy named Hansel. Raised by a single mother, Hansel realized that, at a very early age, he wasn’t like the other boys. As a teenager he met and fell in love with an American soldier named Luther Robinson. Before Luther could marry him, however, Hansel needed to have the surgery that would transform him into a woman. His mother referred her son to a doctor, who would perform the operation, and then gave Hansel her name, Hedwig. The surgery wasn’t successful and Hedwig was left with an inch of his male genitals, leaving him in limbo, somewhere between being a man and a woman. Hedwig’s story continues in America as a performer, a song writer and a lonely individual seeking his other half, his true life partner.
Somewhere along the way, Hedwig met Yitzhak, a Jewish drag performer. He fell in love with him and now Yitzhak accompanies Hedwig on his cross-country tour, using the young man as a personal assistant and a backup singer. However, Hedwig makes Yitzhak promise to give up drag, so as not to upstage the star. But the young man, who loves Hedwig, and takes considerable abuse from him, still dreams of performing as a woman. Hannah Corneau, who Chicago audiences recently adored as Eva Peron, in Marriott’s “Evita,” is magnificent as Yitzhak. Unfortunately, audiences who didn’t see that terrific performance up in Lincolnshire, won’t realize what they’re missing. Still, despite her reduced dramatic and musical demands, Ms. Corneau still manages to garner the greatest ovation at curtain call.
Hedwig’s band is exceptionally talented, often accompanying the singer at an ear-splitting volume. Justin Craig is Skszp, the musical director for The Angry Inch, who plays the guitar, keyboard and provides backup vocals. Matt Duncan portrays Jacek who, along with Tim Mislock as Krzyzhtoff, plays bass guitar, keyboard and sings backup. Peter Yanowitz is the band’s percussionist and the backup vocalist called Schlatko. The entire production is very good, with two exceptional actor/singers in leading roles, but it simply doesn’t pack the dramatic punch of the original, Off-Broadway version.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 8-19 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at all Tickemaster retail locations, at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or going to www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.