BWW Review: TODD ALMOND SHINES in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

BWW Review: TODD ALMOND SHINES in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

What could leave Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's artistic director of 22 years, D. Lynn Meyers, beaming in the lobby and as giddy as the day she had produced her very first show? Perhaps it was the sound of the enthusiastic opening night audience, positively bubbling as they exited the theatre, their excited reactions confirming that Meyers' instincts were correct. That this was absolutely the right time to revive Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a 20-year-old rock musical, first performed at ETC 17 years ago. And, that Todd Almond was the perfect lead actor to take on the tragically complicated and dynamic character of Hedwig Robinson...again.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened Off-Broadway in 1998, enjoyed a London West End production in 2000, and was adapted into a film in 2001. At the time, it didn't leave much of an impression on me. There seemed to be an abundance of LGBTQ exposure in mainstream plays and films with bigger stars, and a bigger box office, (Hedwig only grossed 1.5 million.) Works like, Boys Don't Cry, Billy Elliott, Take Me Out, Rent, Kinky Boots, and Mulholland Drive, among many others, were drawing crowds, not to mention winning Tonys, Oscars, and the Pulitzer Prize. To someone who is used to little or no visibility, this seemed like an embarrassment of riches and Hedwig just got lost in the shuffle.

When Hedwig finally landed on Broadway in 2014 and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, I wondered, why bring it back now? I had dismissed it (without even seeing it) as one of those "tragic LGBTQ stories." You know, the kind where the character faces only adversity and ends up tragically dead. Not to say that these stories aren't true, but it gets depressing when they are the only stories in which you see yourself represented. (Starts to make you a little paranoid!) And, anyway it seemed like we in the LGTBQ community had only one way to go--FORWARD! (And admittedly uphill too, but at least the direction was clear--or is that only in retrospect?) Why go backwards with this show? Then the 2016 election happened.

I have to admit I was afraid of what we in the LGBTQ community could lose after the presidency changed hands, especially when it came to our marriages. But, there was one thing I hadn't counted on. Because of the hard-fought battle for visibility of LBGTQ people over the last 20 years, I noticed that Hedwig's own, individual, personal pain was suddenly very clear to me and (hopefully) to the rest of ETC's opening night audience. After 20 years, the shock value of seeing trans character or of a character being candid about a botched, back-alley sex reassignment, was not the main event. I realized that it might be harder to just lump all LGTBQ people together into one homogenous (for lack of a better word) group. And because eyes have been opened, it's obvious that our pain is individual pain. Hedwig isn't speaking for all of those like her. Her humanity shines through and it is heartbreaking--to everyone. Of course, D. Lynn Meyers' sublime direction may have helped. A lot. But, I like to think that this was the case.

John Cameron Mitchell's book artfully leaves much to the audience's active imagination. It doesn't switch locations or show you flashbacks; it's just you, Hedwig, her memories, and her songs. Nothing steals your attention from 100 straight (for lack of a better word) minutes of her writhing, crumbling, and emoting on stage as she shares the intimate details of her life. But, there is no overacting here. Almond plays her with an astonishing amount of understanding and sympathy. Her wry sense of humor, such a huge part of Hedwig's survival, can no longer salve her gaping wounds as she unsuccessfully searches for her other half, her one true love. And what does she have "to work with"? What she calls an "angry inch." A mangled sex organ that is not enough for some and too much for the rest.

Mr. Almond had performed Hedwig 17 years ago to the day, and it seemed like he had never stopped. Rarely do you see an actor so prepared for an opening night. With only a couple of previews under his belt, his comfort on stage and his willingness to lay everything bare were truly remarkable.

Stephen Trask's entertaining, glam-rock inspired songs soared as Almond made them his own with seemingly little effort but much effect. Almond's co-star a. Beth Harris (who was there 17 years ago, as well) played Yitzhak. She provided perfect support, with a terrific voice that blended beautifully at times, and powerfully dominated when needed. Most of the members of the band, The Angry Inch, were also there in 2001, and they confidently contributed by never stealing focus, but always remaining present.

In fact, every aspect of the production contributed to its overall success. Hedwig's costumes by Stormie Mac, are brilliantly layered and shed as Hedwig strips down to her authentic self. Brian c. Mehring's simple but striking set portrays a reproduction of a section of the Berlin Wall. It's topped with a large, close-up projection of an eye, heavily made-up, with false eyelashes, searching, blinking, and perhaps watching us. But, what really made this reproduction chilling, was that it had, of all things, a door in it. Hedwig could easily escape through the door, but something more powerful than brick and stone kept her there with us. This made me wonder, what does growing up behind such a wall do to people? Hedwig shows us. She is the tragic example of how hatred and prejudice trickles down, from the very top--much more fluidly than money--and seeps into and ruins the most sensitive of souls. So, why bring back Hedwig and the Angry Inch now? After seeing ETC's terrific production, it seems obvious.

Photo:

Todd Almond as Hedwig

Josh Pilot on Bass

Photo by Ryan Kurtz



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