Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the most shocking and honest musical of 1997. When it was written, transgender* issues were almost unheard of, with trans* women more frequently finding themselves at the center of a punchline than the center of a musical. Nowadays, however, trans* exposure is far more prevalent and attitudes towards the trans* community have thankfully evolved considerably. As a result, Hedwig feels more quaint than shocking, but it’s still a very solid work of ’90s musical theatre with a fantastic punk-pop score and rivals any show for entertainment value when given a perfect production. This touring production struggles from being mounted in rather poor taste, but features two knockout performances and still is a great evening out, as long as you don’t expect any kind of emotional honesty.
For those unaware, the story concerns Hedwig, a trans punk rocker from East Berlin who is touring the United States in otherwise abandoned theaters and presenting her rock group’s new touring set. There are other various extenuating circumstances, but they are far more fun to discover during the performance, so I will refrain from spoiling them here. From there, she presents her show, complete with her backup band The Angry Inch and a few dozen acidly funny puns. The central idea of Hedwig, however, is that she is decidedly a failed rock artist, not a genuine star. That crucial aspect of her character is absolutely missing in this highly glamorous production, which looks like it cost several million dollars to mount. When Darren Criss struts out onstage in fabulous costumes and belts out song after song to thunderous applause, it’s highly entertaining, but it feels hollow. You don’t believe for a second that Hedwig is down on her luck, which is a crucial element to connecting with the show. The extravagancies range from a floating car to a 8×8 rack of animatronic mannequin heads wearing a variety of highly glamorous wigs. Each new element does further damage to the heart of the show, but it’s frequently divinely entertaining. This Hedwig is a terrible idea that is executed perfectly. You’ll have a blast, but you won’t walk away with an idea of what Hedwig really should be.
Luckily, Darren Criss is ferociously good as the titular character, matching his maniacal energy with a searing rage and Lena Hall as Yitzhak (the lead backup singer in The Angry Inch) gives one of those rare musical performances that brushes perfection. Stephen Trask’s score, as well, remains untouchable. One of only a handful of actual rock musical theatre scores, songs like “Wig in a Box” or “Sugar Daddy” would be grunge rock standards if originally recorded by an actual band. You should absolutely go see this production to have a great time at the theatre, but wait a few years for an honest presentation of the show.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays at The Golden Gate Theatre through October 30th, whereupon it continues its tour in Los Angeles and San Diego. Tickets and Information available here.