BWW REVIEW: Rock Star Guest Writer Charles Sanders Shares His Views On John Cameron Mitchell's THE ORIGIN OF LOVE: THE STORIES AND SONGS OF HEDWIG

BWW REVIEW: Rock Star Guest Writer Charles Sanders Shares His Views On John Cameron Mitchell's THE ORIGIN OF LOVE: THE STORIES AND SONGS OF HEDWIG

Note from the Editor: Whilst as BWWSydney Senior Editor, I would normally review this fabulous performance, my regular guest Charles Sanders (Co Artistic Director of House of Sand) is much better placed to review this, having a long connection with Hedwig and the Angry Inch and love of John Cameron Mitchell's work, so has taken up the task of being your Rock Star Guest Reviewer for the evening.

Rock Star Guest Reviewer Charles Sanders

Friday 6 July 2018, 7pm, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's cult rock musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch has, like Rocky Horror before it, put the lie to the branding of 'cult'. Those of us in the know (mostly femmey queer kids) have been doing our hair and makeup while lip-syncing to 'Wig In A Box' since the late 90's or early 2000's. But over the last 20 years Hedwig has gone from an obsession for a few (and a downtown curiosity for many), through a successful movie incarnation and productions in every conceivable country, to a Broadway smash staring the likes of Neil Patrick-Harris and Taye Diggs.

In 2018 it's no surprise that a story about a trans* (or at least gender-not-normal) character has cracked the mainstream - many have, and that's all to the better. What is surprising is how revolutionary, complex, unique, universal and heart warming the songs and characters of 'Hedwig' remain, and how necessary the voice of their creator.

The Origin Of Love: The Stories and Songs of Hedwig does pretty much exactly what is says on the label. Loosely a 20th anniversary victory lap, it's essentially John Cameron Mitchell, in a piece of conceptual couture that Sasha Velour could be proud of (costume by Erik Bergrin), telling us about the ideas behind the show and singing the songs - with a few notable additions from more recent projects. It's a simple conceit. While the die hards will always show up to see their idols live, anyone else could be forgiven for thinking that it might be a better night of entertainment to stay in and watch the movie. At least you'd get all the plot and stuff.

The reality in the Sydney Opera House concert hall last night would prove that impulse a foolish one. John (or is it Hedwig, even the performer doesn't always seem sure) is absolutely electric from the moment he steps on stage. He has the rare talent to make a venue as gargantuan as the concert hall feel as intimate as a low ceilinged and dingy cabaret bar. He manages to make each one of the gathered - adoring fans and moderately confused arts wankers alike - feel like they're a special member of a tight knit group, rather than one of thousands in a packed concert hall.

The 'stories' element of the performance consists mostly of a beautifully told potted history and some elegantly interwoven anecdotes. The moments of revelation (and revolution) are in the details: The attitudes of those who see the current trans* 'thing' in pop culture as a fad, and those who were more outwardly bigoted over the history of the show and in Mitchell's personal life; the traumas - lived and witnessed - that inspired the creation of Hedwig and her lovers Tommy Gnosis and Sgt Luter Robinson. We learn about the Gnostic roots of Tommy's name and the Gnostic conception of a female God-above-God. We get anecdotal histories of queer people in Berlin, Kansas, New York and elsewhere. In this respect it's the most fantasticly entertaining cultural and/or gender studies lecture you could hope to take your first year university students to.

In calling the show 'THE ORIGIN OF LOVE' Mitchell hasn't just picked his favourite song title from the show. his message is clear throughout the performance. Love is both the heart of human suffering and our only hope. But no RuPaul-esque tag-lines here. While we love Mother and the mantric call of 'Everybody Say Love!' a more ferocious intellect and a deeper empathy for the victim of circumstance is at play in Mitchell's storytelling and in his and Trask's songs. A sneak peak number from Mitchell's new musical podcast (Say what? I know! It wasn't a thing, he made it a thing.) confirms that there's more deep nuanced storytelling on the way, so let's hope that now Mother has opened the door to the mainstream the more complex and challenging versions of drag and queerness can sashay in.

The song 'The Origin Of Love' was the first to be written for Hedwig and remains the core of her philosophy and, seemingly, Mitchell's. It's a myth suggesting that once long ago humans were four-legged two-headed creatures; separated by force for our audacity, and now destined to wander the earth searching for our other half. The idea of separation angst is never far below the surface; whether it be in personal anecdotes or the image of walls between loved ones - in Hedwig the Berlin Wall, but in the present day a certain ever-imminent border wall. Mitchell is playful when he addresses the state of politics in the U.S. "don't even say his name" and a rousing all-in chorus of "No More Walls!!" inserted into 'Tear Me Down' but the depth of his feeling is clear, both here and when he discusses personal loves, lost too soon.

Mitchell's long time friend & colleague Amber Martin stands in for Yitzhak on backing vocals and costume change entertainment, and is almost as compelling as Mitchell himself. An alternative cabaret star in her own right, Martin recently appeared alongside Mitchell at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with her own show Janis: Undead. Here she sings one of Hedwig's most tragic songs 'The Long Grift' with a passion and depth of pain few performers can summon, and turns the party with a stunning rendition of the nigh-un-coverable 'Ziggy Stardust' (Bowie having been a major inspiration for Hedwig and much of Mitchell's work).

Mitchell has perhaps lost his ease of access to brighter vocal tones and massive interval jumps since he first performed the role, but it barely warrants mention and doesn't make a single iota of difference to the experience when he's performing the songs of his magnum opus with such ferocious clarity and sincerity. I was sceptical that after all these years I could learn something new from John Cameron Mitchell and Hedwig. I was wrong. The Origin Of Love is a brand new revelation, and John Cameron Mitchell is as relevant today as he has been for more than 20 years. Happy 20th Hedwig, may you continue to challenge and comfort new generations for 20 years more!

Note: Whilst the Sydney concert was one night only, the tour continues to Arts Centre Melbourne (10 July) and QPAC (17 July)

Produced by David M. Hawkins
Musical Direction by Andrew Worboys
Costumes by Erik Bergrin
Wig by Mike Potter

Photo by Matthew Placek

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