BWW Review: JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL'S THE ORIGIN OF LOVE TOUR at Bass Concert Hall
John Cameron Mitchell stops in Austin, TX for The Origin of Love Tour on the campus of the University of Texas. On an unseasonably warm night in February, the Bass Concert Hall quickly heats up. Mitchell co-wrote and starred in the Off-Broadway, turned hit movie, turned Tony-winning Broadway revival Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and he's been donning the wig and glitter for over twenty years. This revamped concert series spotlights "The Songs and Stories of Hedwig" and features New York City vocalist and Broadway star Amber Martin. Members of the band from the Broadway production of Hedwig, fondly known as The Tits of Clay, perform the backup instrumentation. Live projections by Michael Zumbrun add an extra layer of immediacy and artistry to the show.
Hedwig is a sympathetic character, and one who would never be considered "mainstream" or popular. She has long resided in the margins, and has gathered a loyal following over the past two decades. Now that the world has access to the Criterion collection Blu-Ray, a recent national tour, a podcast, and endless online videos of every Broadway Hedwig there is, the character has become a household name. It's interesting to walk into the Bass Concert Hall on the night of the show. The convergence of those fans, self-described "Hed-Heads" is evolving ever still. No longer a marginalized figure, she's become quite an appealing Everywoman to those once "misfits and losers" who still feel a connection to this unique character. In the audience this night to see her creator step into the persona again are moms and their teens, thirty and forty-something couples, college students, and even the occasional grandma. A gathering of Hed-Heads truly knows no social boundaries, and it means we finally get to sit down together, look at our seatmates, and say, "Oh, you too?"
Mitchell is a performer from head to toe, with showmanship emanating from his pores. He starts the show with the tour's title track "Origin of Love", a pop power ballad infused with Greek mythology and a particular ache and longing. "Origin of Love", penned by Hedwig songwriter Stephen Trask, is the crux upon which Hedwig's entire journey is built. Hed-Heads boast tattoos from the artwork presented during the movie, a full moon image of two faces, split down the middle as if they've been ripped apart. It's a song that is at once recognizable and somehow brand new, and it begins the evening on an emotional high for all in attendance.
Here is a chance for Hedwig fans to learn the stories behind the beloved characters and the songs that built the show. Mitchell walks the audience through Hedwig's early days in New York City's punk/drag scene and the show's intense, seedy run Off-Broadway at The Jane Street Theatre. The stories Mitchell tells are richly textured and nuanced, a subtlety, Mitchell remarks, that is sorely missing in today's political landscape. Mitchell also recounts his own life growing up across the Army bases of the central United States. Mitchell recalls how, during the development of a new rock musical, he shared a story from his past with Trask. A blonde German Army wife named Helga who moonlighted in prostitution grabbed the attention of Trask, and she became the basis for the musical's main character.
Hedwig is at first a German boy, born Hansel, who suffers a botched sex change in Communist East Berlin and lives her new life in Junction City, Kansas as Hedwig.
Mitchell and Trask loved the idea of a "gender of one", and Mitchell remarks during the concert that it's something we all must create within ourselves. It's this uniqueness, this individuality, that makes Hedwig so unique and yet so universal. Everyone who witnesses this musical, a rock narrative full of pain, hope, and rebirth, sees themselves in Hedwig. We're all a little broken, we're all a little angry. And we're all creating our own paths.
Nestled between each song are stories like this. Mitchell's past loves and losses, and every step along the way that made Hedwig's story so enduring. But also interwoven is the true heart and reason for The Origin of Love Tour itself. Mitchell embarked on this tour after his mother's recent Alzheimer's diagnosis, and all the proceeds are going toward her medical care. With a quaver in his voice, Mitchell explains to the audience, "Alzheimer's takes your memory, but you don't lose your personality. And you never lose songs. So on hard days, I sing to her."
With nary a dry eye in the house, this love affair and harmonious exchange between a performer and his fans would not be complete without some humor. And Mitchell has plenty to go around. He's raunchy and unpredictable, wild and scandalous, and energetic to a fault. The man is 56 years old and keeps shouting "I'm so old!" as he front-rolls and jumps up and down on stage, shouting and singing the entire time. Mitchell has so much energy, he makes Millennials in the audience tired. This concert, like Hedwig, and like Mitchell himself, is a beautifully united marriage of its parts. It's stand-up comedy, it's a Drag routine, it's partially scripted, and partially off the rails. It's wigged, skirted, glittered, and sweaty. And it's nothing if not the most punk rock thing you've ever seen.
Mitchell crowd surfs. He shouts at two front row audience members, "Scoot the fuck over!" and when they lean to the side, confused, he jumps on top of them. Nobody is standing, so people leap to their feet to carry their queen to the back of the house and not drop him. Mitchell, unfazed by any reactions or shock, surfs his way to the last row and comes running back to the stage, rolling and skipping his way up to the mic stand and continuing like nothing ever happened.
He insults an audience member who gets up to get a drink. When she returns, he demands a drink of her Ruby Red Vodka ("My drag name" Mitchell proclaims) and sips it heartily. He stands on this reviewer's chair and swings his skirt in my face, a signature move from Hedwig known as "The Carwash". Phones come out and I'm sure I'm on YouTube right now, laughing, crying, bewildered and delighted. If anything comes from this experience, it's this: we're all even bigger Hed-Heads than we were before, and I for one, now have a completed Bucket List.
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John Cameron Mitchell's The Origin Of Love : The Songs and Stories of Hedwig continues on the West Coast until April. For information and tickets, visit originoflovetour.com. For more information on Texas Performing Arts on the gorgeous UT campus, visit texasperformingarts.org. John Cameron Mitchell also has a merch site with proceeds going to his mother's medical care, located at junctioncitymercantile.com. And for info on the podcast "Hedwig: Inch by Angry Inch", visit hedwigpodcast.com.