Review: “Hedwig & The Angry Inch” Book by John Cameron Mitchell. Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Ian Bell. Musical Direction by David Mitchell. With Jerick Hoffer and Erin Stewart. Produced by Balagan Theatre and Seattle Theatre Group. Now through January 27, 2013 at The Moore Theatre.
OK, for my regular readers, (Capitol Hill arty farty party hipsters), this isn’t news. We’ve quickly figured out over the last three years that Jerick Hoffer, aka drag queen “Jinkx Monsoon” is a ridiculously talented actor, singer, dancer, comedian and all around performer. Word quickly spread that the new drag kid on the Hill, was a Very Big Deal and the more we learned about Jinkx and Jerick, the more fascinated we became and more than one of us began murmuring, “She/He is going to go places…”
And, Mr. Hoffer and Ms Monsoon have gone places. From the halls of Cornish, to the drag stages at Re-bar and every gay bar in town, the Monsoon half of the equation won our hearts with big, boisterous LIVE singing and a savage comic wit. (And, for the 17 of you unaware, the sound stages of Hollywood and the set of the upcoming Season Five of Logo’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” premiering Monday, January 28th…) Meanwhile, the Hoffer side was sneaking into small roles at Seattle Shakespeare and bigger roles at Book-It Rep, then major supporting roles at Balagan and the 5th Avenue. Both sides of the equation began merging with that 5th Avenue role as Jerick tackled the challenge of playing Angel in their summer production of “Rent” (and winning rave reviews) and it ultimately lead to the mother load of all roles for any self respecting actor/drag diva, the Wagnerian Punk Rock Mama Rose role of Hedwig in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s beloved cult rock opera “Hedwig & The Angry Itch” now currently at The Moore Theatre and co-produced by Balagan and Seattle Theatre Group.
Hedwig is a big fat juicy peach of a role, essentially a comic/tragic monologue punctuated with searing/sneering rock songs as it chronicles the journey of a little East German “girlyboy” named Hansel Schmidt who submits to a sloppy sex change operation to escape the Iron Curtain via marriage to an American G.I. only to land in the desolation of Junction City, Kansas with a failed marriage, a one inch “mound of flesh”(instead of a penis) and the realization that the Berlin Wall fell a short period of time after his escape. The price he paid for freedom was higher than necessary. Hansel, now named Hedwig and her joy of music and performance gets her through her Midwestern ordeal but it’s her relationship with a geeky local boy named Tommy who ignites her creativity and the pair become lovers and songwriting partners. The boy eventually bolts from the relationship, taking the songs with him and becomes a rock legend known as Tommy Gnosis. A vengeful Hedwig, her new partner Yitzhak and their ragtag band, “The Angry Inch” follow Tommy around on a “shadow tour” playing dumpy venues while Tommy headlines at stadiums down the street. By the end of the evening and Hedwig’s telling of her tale, she comes to a self-realization that she is her own soul mate, the feminine and the masculine sides of her personality uniting equally and in harmony with each other. Hedwig exits as a strong, triumphant human being of immense power and inner strength.
And, as a role, Hedwig is also an actor’s dream/nightmare requiring expert comic timing, a big voice capable of delicate nuance as well as rock n roll excess, and an enormous stage presence. Obviously the onstage band plays a vital role and the interactions with Yitzhak drive the show along, but the main focus is always Hedwig and her journey and it takes a big “girlyman” to pull it off. Obviously Hedwig’s co-creator John Cameron Mitchell epitomizes that strength and talent and other terrific actors have followed Mr. Mitchell on stage but Seattle itself has already been blessed with its own iconic interpretation with local actor Nick Garrison making his reputation with his searing performances as Hedwig in multiple productions in the last decade both locally, and across the world. I was lucky enough to see one of those productions and Mr. Garrison’s performance was justly praised for its raw power and magnetism. It’s difficult to imagine any other actor locally taking on that role with similar skill and charisma.
But, that would have been in a world prior to the arrival of Mr. Hoffer. His Hedwig skews a bit younger and a lot leggier than Mr. Garrison’s and Mr. Hoffer’s background as a showgirl at Capital Hill drag show LeFaux is certainly maximized here on the huge expanse of The Moore’s stage. There’s a lot more movement and bigger action than in previous versions of this show in Seattle, frequently on far smaller, more intimate stages at Re-bar and elsewhere. But while the huge spaces of The Moore must be filled with bigger movement and expressions, Mr. Hoffer is careful to make the quieter, smaller moments as precise and delicate and finely nuanced as required by the demands of the script. The big, loud numbers like “Angry Inch” and “Tear Me Down” crackle with great energy, passion and bravado but Mr. Hoffer is equally at home with the quiet, tender but emotionally powerful ballads like “Wicked Town”.
And, it’s the final quarter of the play where Mr. Hoffer shows off his greatest skills as he channels Hedwig but also Hedwig telling Tommy’s story in his own, plaintive, midwestern twanged voice. It’s a tender, bewitching, complicated duet as one actor channels two very different characters. It also disproves the idea that a “drag” actor can’t play a variety of roles, including masculine ones. Jerick Hoffer is more than just a drag queen named Jinkx Monsoon and Jerick Hoffer is fully capable of playing an endless variety of roles at various locations on the spectrum of gender and masculinity. The range of his performance here proves that, once and for all, and no more so than in the final moments of the play as Hedwig stands there, stripped of wig and make-up and drag, and steps triumphantly out the stage door. It’s a bravura performance in a bravura role from an actor who will transcend any and all pre-conceived notions about actors and gender and moronic ideas about masculinity, femininity or even, “flamboyance”. It’s a terrific performance from an actor destined to go many places, and probably to ones far distant from Seattle.
This production is also blessed with the terrific stage presence of Erin Stewart as Hedwig’s husband and back up singer Yitzhak. It’s a tricky role. The show is really all about Hedwig but Yitzhak is the only other onstage character that Hedwig has interaction with, other than a few comic bits with the band. The role is an important foil for Hedwig but it’s also a role that requires the actor to spend a large chunk of time quietly reacting to Hedwig. (If you think learning and performing gobs of lines for a big role is difficult, being on a stage LISTENING and REACTING to another character perform gobs of lines is just as tough, if not more difficult…) Ms Stewart has both the comic chops and the big voice to excel in this role and in the few times in the show where Yitzhak gets a chance to “shine”, she expertly seizes those moments and wins huge amounts of love from the audience.
Technically the show is tight with an appropriately grunged out rock and roll stage set from Jennifer Zeyl and appropriately rocked out stage lighting by…well, I don’t know who because there are no programs and there doesn’t seem to be any tech info on Balagan or STG’s website. (Added Info: Lighting Design by Ahren Buhmann/Costume Design by K.D. Schill.) The costumes were ok, albeit a little on the bland sound, and sound wise, it’s what you would expect from The Moore…it’s a beloved old Seattle theater but acoustically it’s kind of awful. I had no trouble making out all the lyrics in the quieter songs, but in the harder edged numbers, it’s like hearing any rock show at The Moore…a lot of noise. “Hedwig & The Angry Inch” IS a rock musical, but it’s just as important to hear and understand the lyrics in a rock based musical play as any other. The lyrics of “Hedwig” are an integral part of the story; not being able to hear them will annoy more traditional theater goers.
Finally, a shout out to director Ian Bell for telling this tale with great verve. Mr. Bell, also known by many as an accomplished local actor AND the producer of the Brown Derby series of staged film satires at Re-bar, does an excellent job of adapting the staging of the work to a stage as large as the one at The Moore. “Hedwig” started out life at the far smaller Jane Street Theater in NYC and typically is performed in smaller venues; breaking it out for a house as huge as The Moore is a challenge well met by Mr. Bell. Personally, I feel “Hedwig” is best produced in smaller houses; the material demands intimacy, but Mr. Bell’s production does prove that the work can resonate in a rock temple as cavernous as The Moore. There are also projected images during the show which were largely effective…while I personally didn’t need to see the footage of sex reassignment surgery projected on the thirty foot rear wall of the stage, some members of the audience seemed to get a thrill out of it. (Voyeurs).
Who’s this for? “Hedheads” (Super devoted fans of the musical of which there are many.) Fans of alternative theater and musical theater. The “arty farty party hardy” crowd. Pretty much everyone who lives on Capitol Hill, used to live on Capitol Hill, or would like to live on Capitol Hill. Folks who normally hate traditional musicals. Folks who just enjoy a good old fashioned queer rock opera with gorgeous songs, a clever script and terrific performances.
Who’s this not for: Anyone who thinks the art of the musical died with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Bigots. Bitter jealous drag queens unable to cope with superior talent and competition.
CORRECTION: I mistakenly credited Ian Bell as the director of previous productions of “Hedwig” in Seattle featuring Nick Garrison. Mr. Bell sent me an email gently correcting me for this error; Imogen Love and Mark Gallagher directed those excellent productions. The offending paragraph in question was re-written and apologies to Mr. Bell, Ms Love, and Mr. Gallagher for the error.
-MS (11:05 AM/1/18/13)