Thursday, March 09, 2017

Musical Pleasures Power 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' but Excessive Monologues Shortchange the Electricity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
National Tour
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 19

Until last week, when I began to do reconnaissance on Hedwig and the Angry Inch in anticipation of seeing it Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre, my familiarity was cursory at best.

Though now remedied on all accounts, I hadn't seen the musical onstage, watched the movie or heard the music.

There's no good reason for this, as even in 1998--when the musical written by John Cameron Mitchell with music & lyrics by Stephen Trask first ran Off-Broadway--or soon thereafter, I was already quite a fan of punk rock, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, the musical Rent and other clear points of reference, though never too greatly The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Perhaps because it always seemed akin to something else, I would have guessed  Hedwig dated back well before 1998. And maybe I never paid much attention, at any point, because it always felt like something I should have known of earlier.

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
But my crash course--until I actually saw the musical onstage--was one of genuine delight.

I liked what I gleaned of the show's premise, synopsis and title character based on a Wikiperusal, and enjoyed the movie, in which John Cameron Mitchell plays Hedwig as he originally did Off-Broadway.

And I loved the music, based on listening--repeatedly, but really only over a few days--to both the Original Cast Recording with Mitchell and even more so, the 2014 Broadway Cast starring Neil Patrick Harris.

The current tour is based on that revival and likewise directed by Michael Mayer, who had helmed Spring Awakening. The production was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 2014 and won four--including Best Revival of a Musical--with a terrific performance clip from the Tonys only adding to my anticipation.

So by the time I got to the resplendent Oriental Theatre--I am beguiled anew by the beauty of the venue every time I visit--I had quickly gone from being fairly clueless about Hedwig and the Angry Inch to being quite smitten with what I knew of the material.

...including much of the show's somewhat confusing conceit and storyline centered around Hedwig, who had been Hansel Schmidt, a "slip of a girlyboy" growing up in East Berlin, where--without a father and mistreated by his mother--he discovered American rock 'n roll and fell in love with a U.S. soldier.

The story is told onstage by Hedwig, so I won't reveal much more of it, but I imagine it could be hard-to-follow for the uninitiated, so reading Wikipedia ahead of time isn't a bad idea.

Having had a botched sex change operation that left her with an "angry inch," Hedwig now wears Ziggyesque makeup and a blond wig and--as the musical opens--she & her band (including her husband Yitzhak) are shadowing the much bigger tour of a rock star named Tommy Gnosis.

I knew all this and more going in to the show, and I truly assumed I was going to absolutely love it, given how much I liked Trask's entire score.

Yet while appreciating the performance of Euan Morton as Hedwig, being empathetic to the character's travails and entirely receptive to the musical's underlying messaging and pathos, the truth is the music is all I really wound up loving.

From my research--including watching the movie, which understandably differs a bit--I hadn't caught on that no characters are embodied onstage except for Hedwig and Yitzhak (played here by Hannah Corneau, who I had seen in the title role of Evita last year at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire), along with four bandmates who, like Yitzhak, say little or nothing.

So except for the musical numbers, many of which are quite delectable, the entire show running nearly two hours with no intermission is a monologue by Hedwig.

Initially, and at times throughout, Hedwig's rhetoric is charming, endearing, revelatory, ribald and--though I missed most of the punchlines from the upper balcony of a theater way too big for this show--quite humorous.

But after the show essentially begins with a blistering "Tear Me Down"--which, for all the disparate musical allusions of Hedwig, sounds oddly gleaned from Poison's "Nothing But a Good Time" and Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend"--nearly a half-hour goes by before another song is played.

By any measure, the Scottish Morton embodies Hedwig well, but not only did his vocal timbre not equal what I had heard from Mitchell and Harris, his lack of a known persona likely eroded all the talking of some cheeky, breaking-the-fourth-wall fun. (I feel obliged to note that Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, in his rave, 4-star (out of 4) review of this production extolled Morton for not being "too famous to ever get in his singular character's way," but I really think a known star might have helped.)

For the most part, musical numbers like "The Origins of Love," "Sugar Daddy," the wondrous "Wig in a Box," "Wicked Little Town" and the closing "Midnight Radio" were blissful.

So it wasn't as if I didn't have an enjoyable time at Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but I think I would have been far more enraptured with simply a Hedwig concert, devoid of all the oratory.

Certainly I get that the backstory of Hedwig's compelling character comes from her own voice, but especially with Trask's strong lyrics, I'm not sure why so much is spoken and not sung.

Or, as in the movie, why some of the other characters involved in Hedwig's tales aren't cast and acted out. 

Let me say here that, from Eddie Vedder to Bruce Springsteen to Bono, I love when rock stars do a considerable amount of speaking from the concert stage. But as the conceit of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is that we are watching a performance--or perhaps a string of them--I can't deny at multiple junctures thinking, "Shut up and sing!"

I also have to believe that had I not come into the Oriental knowing much of the narrative, conceit, music and song lyrics, I would have largely been lost, particularly if I were feeling a bit of weeknight grogginess that can often beset the after work crowd in the upper reaches.

Seeing Hedwig completely cold may well have rendered me even more lukewarm.

As it stands, if you love Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a stage musical, this seems like a rather strong rendition, albeit without some of the star power you might appreciate. (After NPH exited the title role on Broadway, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs and John Cameron Mitchell himself were among those who assumed it.)

If like me, you're smitten by the music and movie, I'd still recommend Hedwig, but far less enthusiastically than I imagined.

Though the music is great, and concept unique--albeit in a Ziggy Stardust vein--I rather surprisingly and distressingly didn't find Hedwig and the Angry Inch to be a great musical. 

So for more traditional Broadway musical lovers, perhaps largely oblivious to date, although there is much to appreciate about Hedwig, it may not be your cup of tea. (The Oriental was near capacity on Tuesday night, conceivably because this show was part of the Hamilton subscription series. It's wrong to peg fans of the latter musical as traditionalists, but I did note some patrons walking out on Hedwig.)

No comments: