Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater

Unapologetically flamboyant and brash, Chance Theater's edgy new production of the gender-bending rock musical gets irrepressible staging.

By: Feb. 09, 2024
Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater

Featuring a humorous yet surprisingly poignant original story from John Cameron Mitchell and piercing, high-octane tunes from composer Stephen Trask, the gloriously ribald glam-rock musical HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is currently—"whether you like it or not"—flipping its wigs out in a brand new extremely engaging production directed by Matthew McCray at the Cripe Stage of Chance Theater, where it continues performances at its OC home in Anaheim through February 25, 2024.

A boldly defiant, electrically-charged theatrical curiosity, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is an edgy, unabashed celebration of one unique, charismatic, otherworldly artist who, we gradually learn, was quite ahead of her time when she came into being. She's slightly chaotic and unhinged, but it's almost the very thing that will make you want to be in her periphery (barring your own closed-minded bigoted heart, that is).

At its deepest core, this wonderfully irreverent and unconventional musical, more than anything, highlights the importance of embracing and living one's true self—something that this pioneering, now revolutionary title character repeatedly acknowledges throughout the course of the show. And though it may seem like this fringe-feeling show centered on a trans character won't appeal to anyone outside the LGBTQ+ community (and their allies), there's lots for everyone to enjoy, as long as they are willing to keep an open mind—which, brilliantly, is what this musical is essentially also trying to convey.

What began as a 1988 off-Broadway cult hit that later became a 2014 Tony Award-winning Broadway-rebooted audience pleaser, this brash musical is a self-contained rock concert/confessional hybrid presented first-hand by its cheeky, compelling title character, here played with admirable sassy gusto by endearing newcomer Tom Avery.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Tom Avery, Mazie Voss, and James Michael McHale.
Photo by Casey Long.

The talented, alluring Avery effortlessly acts as the showy, playful nucleus to a small supporting ensemble cast—each of whom actually plays the show's live instruments (!) as members of Hedwig's live backing band "the Angry Inch," brazenly named for the "one-inch mound of flesh" Hedwig is left with after her unsuccessful gender reassignment surgery.

Despite this ouch setback, this hair-and-glitter tornado forges on, spearheaded by a tenacious drive to live her life as authentic and as unapologetic as possible, no matter what bullshit comes her way.

And, gurrlll, there's lots of it.

When we first encounter Hedwig and her band, she just happens to be in the midst of a modest concert "tour," which currently has brought her to our little OC community of Anaheim, at a dingy hole-in-the-wall locale called the La Palma Club. On the surface, she seems excited and amped to be performing another gig, but, in actuality, her occasional facial expressions and demeanor betray feelings of bitterness—and, dammit, she is doing her level best to keep things fluffy and fun.

Across the street, it turns out, is Angel Stadium, which, at this moment, is the latest giant venue playing host to famous rock god Tommy Gnosis, a rising superstar who is also on his own concert tour (um, coincidentally appearing in all the same cities Hedwig is also performing).

We learn quickly that Tommy, in his younger days, was Hedwig's former pupil-turned-collaborator-turned-lover, whom she molded and mentored from a shy awkward emo boy into a sexy-hot, self-confident young man that has since found huge success after their breakup. Hedwig's anger is further exacerbated by the fact that Tommy has become a world famous pop star by singing hit songs that Hedwig either wrote herself or co-wrote with him—without properly crediting her.

This bitterness, naturally, triggers Hedwig to begin regaling us, the audience, about her rocky journey to becoming the "internationally ignored" artist we are listening to now.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Tom Avery and Julia Smushkova. Photo by Casey Long.

For the course of 90-plus hard-rocking minutes (without an intermission), the audience bares witness to a live re-telling of the drama that surrounds the fascinating rollercoaster life story of out-and-proud Hedwig, an East German gender-queer artist formerly known as the adorable "girly boy" Hansel Schmidt, the illegitimate love child of an ennui-infected German mother and a mysteriously absent American soldier father.

Young Hansel, understandably, grew up feeling incredibly different on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, discovering an early penchant for makeup and wigs, and occasional Armed Forces radio programs she listened to while resting her head inside the kitchen oven. She was particularly obsessed with American pop culture and music, spending her early childhood days longing to live out her rock-and-roll fantasies, and hoping to one day escape from her communist surroundings to live out loud as a famous pop singer in the (supposedly) more free, open-minded West.

This desire for escape is further stoked after being inspired by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes' theory about the "The Origin of Love." Hansel is soon convinced that—just like the spliced figures described in Aristophanes' hypothesis—she, too, has another compatible "half" somewhere out there that she must find. Could her missing other half likely be in… America?

Hansel's ticket West materializes in the form of Luther, a butch American soldier who lusts after her—even after learning that she is, well, technically a dude!

Luckily, the female-presenting Hansel is more than happy to dress according to Luther's specific fetishes, which, in turn, makes him fall in love with her, prompting a hasty marriage proposal along with a promise to move to the United States.

Of course, there's this big problem that might be a legal hindrance to their coupling: they can't really marry, because… well, Hansel was anatomically born a male.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Laura Herskov and Julia Smushkova. Photo by Casey Long.

But much to Hansel's surprise, her own mother blesses the betrothal, and even schemes a plan that has her giving Hansel her passport (and, therefore, Hansel's new name, Hedwig), and also arranging for her only child to have a hush-hush sex change operation to become a female.

Unfortunately, things don't pan out as planned. The "doctor" botches the operation—hence, Hedwig's "angry inch."

Despite this setback, the couple marry anyway and make the move to America—albeit settling in middle-of-nowhere Junction City, Kansas, far removed from the glam hotspots of Hedwig's dreams. And in a strange twist, she later separates from Luther a year later, coincidentally, just as the Berlin Wall is getting knocked down, forever removing the physical barrier that separated the two halves that divided Hedwig's home country.

But, as befitting the diva that she is, she rises from her doldrums to awaken as her true self: a local rock-and-roll glamazon frontwoman of a queer band filled with fellow immigrants that includes keyboardist Skszp (musical director Lex Leigh), bassist Jacek (James Michael McHale), guitarist Krzyzhtof (Mazie Voss), excitable drummer Schlatko (Julia Smushkova), and Hedwig's uber-attentive assistant/roadie/backup vocalist and occasional punching bag Yitzhak (Laura Herskov), who, clearly, appears to have an unrequited, puppy-dog crush on Hedwig.

Divorced and without constant financial support, Hedwig decides to help fund her lifestyle with odd jobs here and there—including neighborhood babysitting gigs. This leads to her meeting a handsome younger man named Tommy Speck, the awkward teenage brother of one of the kids she babysits.

Much to her astonishment, Hedwig soon develops deep feelings for the seemingly hetero Tommy, himself an aspiring singer-songwriter, prompting her to write new songs about him and, later, even extending the prospect of, perhaps, writing songs together.

Unsurprisingly, the pair's creative collaboration slowly expands to include a romantic one as well. Completely smitten, Hedwig is convinced that she has finally found her missing "half" in this teenage boy. Is he really?

To that end, she christens her protégé-turned-lover with a new, more exciting stage name: Tommy Gnosis (gnosis being the Greek word for "knowledge”)—and helps mold him into a teen glam rock god, which, naturally, Tommy savors. Their affair, however, has one major hiccup: Hedwig refuses to admit her most important personal truth, fearful that Tommy—a devout Christian—might be disgusted by who she really is underneath the sexy clothes and self-assured persona.

Thus, things with Tommy (SPOILER ALERT!) soon begin to crumble. When he finally discovers Hedwig's previous anatomical identity, Tommy cannot bring himself to love Hedwig back. He bolts—taking all the songs they wrote together with him.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Laura Herskov, Tom Avery, and James Michael McHale.
Photo by Casey Long.

Which leads the story to the present, where Hedwig is making the best out of her blah situation, mostly because she is as gloriously proud of who she is more than ever before—a sign that all her struggles are just part of the deal. Naturally, the audience can't help but want for her to succeed.

Part rock concert, part stand up comedy set, and part amusing protest diatribe, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is a bold, enthralling modern musical that is surprisingly absorbing and heady, even as it defies and upholds traditional musical theater convention at the same time. Mitchell's edgy but approachable, and at times intellectually-stimulating book mixed with Trask's expressive, creatively crafted songs combine to present an explosive yet grounded show that is, for the most part, unlike any other musical theater property that's been presented on stage.

Essentially a long, wit-laced monologue enhanced with deliciously saucy flashbacks, fun, eccentric animation, and lots of terrific, anthemic songs, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH is a fun, thrilling stage musical that does require some tighter-than-normal concentration to sift through its unhinged but entertaining chaos to earn its satisfying reward.

Peppered with heavy, heady themes mixed in with its amusingly audacious machinations, the musical is slightly hampered by its first-person narrated story, told and described directly to the audience, rather than have it be acted out fully with actors in actually dramatized scenes that we can see rather than just merely hear about. For the most part, the story that Hedwig shares is still a compelling one that has us riveted, but paying closer attention to all its details and plot drops mingling with her wacky, innuendo-filled repartee is of utmost importance.

For Chance Theater's impressive, awesomely electric production, there's a bit more attention required to absorb all the minute details, even with an engaging, truly compelling actor like Avery in the role of Hedwig.

The loud, sometimes dizzying chaos of the show is a total vibe, but some important aspects tend to disappear behind the noise and cheeky sass sometimes, which could cause frustration for some newbies who aren't getting some of the plot points being told. For example, I seem to recall in previous iterations that Hedwig and Yitzhak are described as a married couple when we meet them, but I don't remember that detail being explicitly conveyed here (did I miss that little nugget drop?). There are a few minor little occurrences like these throughout the production, but collectively not enough to mar the show's undeniable excellence for me.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Tom Avery (center). Photo by Casey Long.

Overall, there is a lot to love about Chance's admirable, spunky production. Director McCray—who helmed one of my favorite productions of RENT ever on this very stage last year—takes great advantage of the close intimacy provided by the theater's smaller footprint, quite a clever contrast to the last large-scale, big-budget national tour production I saw at the Pantages Theatre back in 2016 starring Darren Criss in the title role. That production was indeed awesome, buoyed mostly by its dazzling marquee star and its eye popping production values. But unlike Chance Theater's iteration, that tour was by no means as immersive and as in-your-face.

The closer proximity of the audience to the beautiful, utterly mesmerizing Avery and their fellow musician-actors means we get even closer to the heart of the show's emotionally raw performances, where those tiny but significant nuances fills in the narrative gaps that much of the show's imbedded chaos inadvertently obscures.

Avery may be new to So Cal theater audiences, but I foresee much more for them in the near future.

Meanwhile, the band—led by the sardonic facial tics of musical director Leigh—are absolutely rocking out hard, providing their divalicious frontwoman with the matching musical energy to accompany her volatile vocals (helpful tip, though… maybe invest on a Drum Shield for the super loud drums, which, at times, drowns out the other instruments and even Avery's soaring vocals).

And though Herskov's Yitzhak is the only other person on stage that's really allowed to expand the character beyond just being one of Hedwig's mostly non-verbal associates, the rest of Hedwig's bandmates are each given distinctive personality traits that each respective actor/musician unmistakably makes known, albeit with little dialogue required. I do, though, miss seeing the small detail of Yitzhak's "fake" beard/mustache (a character aspect that I've seen in every stage production but this one) which was, oddly, not included here… but I digress.

Once again, the Chance's sets, costumes, lighting, and sound design show that smaller, black box regional theaters can look and sound just as impressive as larger theaters equipped with bigger square footage, larger staff, and bigger budgets. I'd like to think that working under these parameters forces more clever innovation and, thus, their production of HEDWIG involves an appropriately "dingy" club set (with lots of little tricky surprises) designed by Bradley Kaye, and appropriate "period" / glam rock costumes designed by Bradley Allen Lock. Complementing their work are lighting designer Zach Moore and sound designer James Markoski, who both help accentuate everything we see and hear with even more pronounced panache.

My only real, very minor gripe with this new production is with the projection of the animated scenes designed by Nick Santiago, which were meant to serve as enhanced visual aids for the mythos that enamors Hedwig into her belief about finding her missing half. Here, the animation sequences were a little hard to comprehend and view, especially for those that have never seen the show before in previous productions. The artwork itself looks great, but because the "canvases" that serve as the screens for these animations to be shown on are filled with far too much texture (versus a flatter, more uniformly-colored light surface), that the complex animations do not show up as clear as they should have otherwise.

Though, yes, the "graffiti" sprayed all over the club's backdrop that is supposed to represent the Berlin Wall looks pretty darn awesome by itself, it is covered with so much wild designs that anything projected on it—when it later becomes the canvas for the projections—doesn't quite show up. A similar disadvantage occurs on the side walls, too, that have been covered with opaque curtains, simply because the vertical fabric folds don't provide a flat, even surface for Santiago's animations to really be crystal clear. It’s a shame, because from what I can tell, the drawings looked awesome, and probably would have further aided Hedwig's tale.

Review: Bold Staging of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH Rocks Chance Theater
Tom Avery, Mazie Voss, and Lex Leigh. Photo by Casey Long.

While, admittedly, I do still prefer the superior 2001 film adaptation of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH that creator/star Mitchell himself wrote, directed, and starred in over the stage version (the film does have the unfair advantage of being able to expand Hedwig's universe beyond the confines of a single stage set with more actors, more scenery, and more movie magic), the act of experiencing this musical live and in-person is still a thrill in and of itself.

The tumultuous nature of this musical sometimes means that a few details do get lost in all the noise. But swimming within that beautiful chaos, when all is said and sung, is a lovely, overarching catharsis that's smart, emotionally-gripping, and even positively heartwarming by design. For Chance Theater's new rock musical production, that realization is its greatest strength.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos from Chance Theater's production of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH by Casey Long.

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Chance Theater's Production of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH—directed by Matthew McCray and featuring musical direction by Lex Leigh—continues on the Cripe Stage through February 25, 2024.

Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.




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