Review: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at American Stage

Runs until June 16th!

By: May. 19, 2024
Review: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH at American Stage
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“Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” --the title of a 1965 song by the Barbarians

“And the strangest things seem suddenly routine…” --from “Wig in a Box”

With the possible exception of punk, glam rock is my favorite musical style from the 1970s.  With their flamboyant clothes, glitter, and proud androgyny, the glams’  music turned into a wonderfully wild amalgamation of bubblegum, rockabilly, sci-fi, cabaret and art rock.  Songs like David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and “The Jean Genie,”  Mott the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes,” T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and “Jeepster,” Lou Reed’s “Vicious,” and even Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy,” say more about the hedonistic 1970s than “Stairway to Heaven” or disco’s greatest hits.  Play something like “Bang a Gong” or “Rebel Rebel” at full volume as you drive down I-275, and you’ll agree that glam rock is, musically, about the most fun you can have.  

That’s why John Cameron Mitchell’s HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH and the songs by Stephen Trask mean so much to me; it’s like glam rock re-invented into a  passive aggressive bar band and sprung to new life.  Listen to “Wig in a Box,” which starts as a glammy torch song and is my vote for HEDWIG’s finest number, and you can’t help but feel the T. Rex vibes.

The title character could be described as a sort of superhero of individuality, a paragon of being yourself, the one and only you.  There’s no one quite like Hedwig in the annals of musical theatre. She tells her life story in song, like this autobiographical choice morsel: “My sex-change operation got botched/My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/Now all I’ve got is a barbie doll crotch/I've got an angry inch…”

But the angry inch aside, how do you properly describe Hedwig?  Not male, not female, and since the sex-change operation wasn’t really a choice, should she be described as transgendered?  Mitchell has an answer to that: "She's a gender of one,” they have said.  “A queer voice…[but] not specifically meant to be transgendered.” 

Where does a soul like Hedwig belong in our world of limited labels?  In “Tear Me Down,” Hedwig compares herself to the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 and came down 28 years later: “Ladies and Gentleman,/Hedwig is like that wall/standing before you in the divide/between East and West,/Slavery and Freedom,/Man and Woman,/Top and Bottom./And you can try and tear her down…”

Like her wig, Hedwig is in a way stuck in a box, singing in a run-down abandoned performance space that seems stranded in a sort of Mad Max Post-Apocalyptic world (or the aftermath of the Berlin Wall with smashed concrete blocks).  She’s performing near the large (and very loud) tour of a mega-famous rocker and plagiarizer of Hedwig’s songs, Tommy Gnosis, a conservative Christian whose background tragic love story with Hedwig becomes one of the more interesting tidbits revealed to us. In some ways, the performance space becomes a confessional and the audience acts as a collection of priests, actively listening and reacting to the rockin’ confessions of the one-of-a-kind Hedwig.     

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, currently playing at American Stage (with final performances at Jannus Live!), is a rollicking, raucous, adrenaline-pumping, soulful and yet sometimes sad affair.  If you like your shows tight and organic, plot-driven and straight-forward, then obviously this is not your Roxy Music album of choice.  It’s all over the map in story and performance.  It’s a mess, but it’s a glorious mess.  When it ended after a little more than 90 minutes, I found myself wanting more (I feel the same way after listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars).

In the role of Hedwig, Matthew McGloin is appropriately otherworldly.  He enters with Ziggy Stardust-like eye-shadow and draped in dayglo peacock-like feathers, donning a meringue-colored wig, making him look like Tammy Wynette as a member of ICP with a Celeste Holm smile.  (Later, wearing a different wig, he seems like an odd combination of Dee Snider in his Twisted Sister days and Daryl Hannah’s replicant from Blade Runner.)  Muscular like Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar or Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, Mr. McGloin is a tour de force, brilliantly zapping with energy and aplomb.  I have seen two other Hedwigs--the original John Cameron Mitchell and the astonishing Spencer Meyers--and the charismatic Mr. McGloin stands with both of them.  It’s a workout where we, the audience, grow as breathlessly exhausted as he, and a stunning one at that.    

Mr. McGloin dances on furniture, struts his stuff, and even interacts with the audience, at one point seeming to grind on an audience member’s lap.  The character ventures into the house more than once, and I wanted even more of this connecting with us, because the show calls for this kind of freedom of space, where anything obviously goes.

The show, solid as much of it is, meanders at times, but it ends in a similar way to Pippin, where clothing is stripped, artifice goes away, and we see the characters as their ultimate identities, ready to face a new future.

There’s another key character to the show--Hedwig’s lover and eye-rolling sidekick, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen from Zagreb, played by K. Chinthana Sotakoun.  When Sotakoun sang “I Will Always Love You” acappella, out-Whitneying Whitney Houston, I sat up in my seat, stunned by such overwhelming vocal work.  And when the performer thrills us with “The Long Gift”--“Look what you’ve done!”--it becomes a screed of anger and pain that moved me greatly.  What a voice!    

The pulsating band, the Angry Inch, stays onstage the entire time. They include: Tampa native Aaron Collins on keyboard, Jeremiah Pafumi on drums, Clarke Jacobson on guitar, Rick Nolting on electric bass, and the band leader (and amazing guitarist) Elijah Pafumi.  There are so many magical musical touches, including the rockabilly flavor of the song “Sugar Daddy,” a wink to A-ha’s “Take on Me” in another section, and early on, an incredible grunge instrumental of “America the Beautiful.” 

There’s a seedy bar quality to the whole affair, care of Luke Cantarella’s scenic design.  Jimmy Lawlor’s lighting fits the rock concert mood of the piece, including heavy strobe lights (those who get affected by this should take note).   Hannah Smith Allen’s projections work wonders, especially during the song “Origin of Love,” where body parts artfully float in and out of the screen, inexplicably along with Hokusai’s iconic Japanese masterpiece, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Director Kirsten Kelly, along with music director Ethan Deppe, has guided a remarkable show.  It’s slow at times, scattered at others, but it all comes together in the end.  And the audience, most of whom were older, were cheering, raising their arms, allowing themselves to become a part of the event. Their world and life experience may be miles away from Hedwig’s, but theatre bridges them together. 

It’s sad that, in 2024, performing this specific show in Florida has to be called an act of bravery. Certain segments of society seem to be slipping backwards, especially when it comes to homophobia and transphobia.    Ms. Kelly, who saw the original Off-Broadway production in 1998, wrote in her director’s note: “I wanted to capture the spirit today…while also looking truthfully at who we are now, twenty-six years later, as we face this moment of deep divisions and a culture of hate…We see everyday how those who don’t fit a certain limited mold, are mocked openly, bullied, pinned down, disregarded and even assaulted--especially in the LGBTQ+ community.  The Hedwig we are bringing to St. Pete today, is one way we can celebrate and honor those who courageously live as their full selves.”

And she and her company have succeeded in this promise hands down. 

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH plays at American Stage until mid-June, where from June 13-16, it will be performed at Jannus Live!    


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