BWW Review: Lift Up Your Hands for HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at the Milwaukee Rep
You enter beneath the red glow of poster-plastered walls like a dank and storied New York cabaret. A ticket-taker clad in grunge points in the direction of a table with a framed command: "Take the damn ear plugs." Toto, I have a feeling we're not in the Stiemke anymore.
But when you get inside and look up, it's there outlined in rope lights: STIEMKE. Beneath the unmistakable proof that you are indeed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, there sits a stage and a cluster of small tables to complete the cabaret illusion. We lucked out with a table smackdab front and center -- a table that came with a warning from one of the aforementioned ticket-takers: Hedwig may interact with you. She may touch you. But unless invited, do not touch Hedwig.
I put on a front of being totally at ease with the notion of Hedwig coming into my personal space, nodded, and said something like, "Sounds great, bring it on!" I then nervously munched the gummy bears piled in a candy dish on our table. Beside the dish, a note: "Eat me, we're real gummy bears. Don't be an asshole and steal this sign." I didn't steal it, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tempting to pocket something so small yet so clever as a memento of this brilliant production. It's arguably one of the very best the Rep has ever staged.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, made its Off-Broadway debut in 1998 and has enjoyed a cult following ever since. It wasn't until 2014 that the rock musical finally made it to Broadway, starring Neil Patrick Harris and going on to win four Tony Awards. There's also a 2001 film adaptation.
Hedwig is a far cry from mainstream musical theater fodder. The show's formula follows Hedwig, a genderqueer performer, who shares her story through songs and monologues of growing up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, undergoing a botched sex change operation, coming to America as a G.I.'s wife, hitting rock bottom, picking herself up, falling in love, and falling apart.
The show blends rock and cabaret with introspective speeches, comedy, and even improv. Hedwig demands audience reaction and interaction, and if you fall short, sneak away to use the bathroom, or are responsible for a rogue cell phone ringing, the titular star will call you out. So come present and wide open -- or, as Hedwig says, "fully dilated."
Embodying Hedwig in this Rep production is Matt Rodin, creator and host of The Red Carpet Challenge on Broadway.com and The Come Up on the Broadway Podcast Network. Milwaukee, lift up your hands for this outstanding, unparalleled performance. Rodin runs the gamut from a "slip of a girly-boy" to punk rock queen to sweetly-sung emotion to comedian to gyrating sex fiend.
The character of Hedwig is certainly fleshed out, and Rodin bravely nestles into every corner of her being. His is an honest, heartfelt, and dryly humorous Hedwig. In terms of vocals and rock 'n' roll, there's no ifs, ands, or buts -- Rodin is as killer as they come, and he does it all in glorious wigs, sky-high platforms, and ten pounds of glitter. Shout out to the exceptional Mieka Van Der Ploeg, Costume Designer.
The only other character called out in the playbill is that of Yitzhak, Hedwig's second husband and member of her band, The Angry Inch. In his heart, Yitzhak is a drag performer. Threatened by Yitzhak's talent, Hedwig agrees to marry him on the condition that he never wear another wig.
The incomparable Bethany Thomas plays the Rep's Yitzhak, quietly stewing and smoldering throughout the show as tension builds between herself and Rodin. Without drag, Yitzhak is incomplete, and Thomas' brooding over the loss of her true self is felt even silently. There are a handful of moments throughout the show where Thomas gets to sing, and these are moments to treasure. Her voice is at once powerful and lovely.
In the final moments of Hedwig, she unleashes the full power of her instrument and exuberant stage presence in a shower of glitter and wholeness. It's that moment that sticks with me and makes me teeter on the edge of scooping up more tickets to this show. Thomas is just that superb.
The rest of the cast is made up of badass bandmates (Maxwell Emmet on guitar, Tommy Hahn on bass, and Patrick Morrow on drums) and a slew of young roadies who listen intently from the sidelines and occasionally mob the stage. Their presence adds to the immersive quality of Hedwig.
If you're seated in one of the two-seater bistros like I was, you may feel particularly drenched in this production. A couple to my right had Hedwig straddling their table and a pair of ladies to my left were playfully called out as "stinky." A guy named Ezra wound up being a repeat target, and I myself enjoyed a fringed car-wash lapdance from Hedwig herself. Hey, if I can handle the theatricality of it all, so can you. Don't fear the front row. It's all part of the immersion.
Says Scenic Designer Scott Davis, "You are plummeted into the world we are trying to experience the minute you walk into the Stiemke theater. The lobby is designed to feel like a grunge club. We redid the bar and there are non-gender bathrooms. By the time you are sitting in your seat, you already have a feel of what the world is. You already understand where we are trying to put you."
Where Davis alongside Director Mark Clements, Lighting Designer Jason Fassl, and Projection Designer Mike Tutaj have put us is an intimate space, at once as edgy and moody in its lighting as it is spectacularly glam. This is a show that sends you back into the world reeling from the pageantry, the thundering music, the raw and tender moments, the palpable experience of it all.
Days later I'm craving the songs, the performances. To witness the staging once more. To see what else I can pick up on, or to experience what new twist Rodin will bring to another evening's show. No two will be alike. But I feel I can confidently say that each one will end with a standing ovation, hands lifted in openness and praise.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow