Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Whether you like it or not (and I think you will), Hedwig has come to Pittsburgh. She and her band The Angry Inch are here to kick off Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s Rockin’ West End series and to answer the timeless question: “How did some slip of a girly boy from Communist East Berlin become the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you?”

If that’s not enough to hook you, there is so much more than meets the eye when it comes to this show. For 20 years, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has inspired legions of fans alike to redefine their perceptions of the gender binary, the line between show tunes and rock music, and the enduring power of love. What started as a cabaret act that played a few New York City clubs and featured songs by the likes of Yoko Ono and Cher has since grown into a countercultural phenomenon. Fortunately, what meets the eye, ear, and soul in PMT’s electrifying production is also spectacular on its own.

Namely, the thing that not only meets the eye, ear, soul but also holds onto them tight for the show’s intermission-less 90 minutes is Braden Chapman. In the titular role of Hedwig, he is a revelation. His uniquely spellbinding performance will temporarily banish all memories of his notorious antics as a contestant on Rupaul’s Drag Race and the work of other great past Hedwigs.

Chapman’s Hedwig is funnier than most, which only makes the character’s breakdown late in the show all the more devastating. Original Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell’s script has enough clever turns of phrase to give you whiplash. Chapman effortlessly makes each punchline (including a few Pittsburgh-specific references) a knockout with only a well-timed pause or well-placed comedic inflection. Stephen Trask has written what many consider the musical theatre canon’s only true rock n roll score. You can’t always hear the lyrics (it is a rock show after all), but the emotions, from the joy in “Wig in a Box” to the despair in “Exquisite Corpse,” come through crystal clear with Chapman’s raw delivery.

The jokes and double entendres riddled throughout Mitchell’s book and Trask’s songs are what Hedwig uses to heal the many physical and emotional scars inflicted on her by a life of lost loves and dreams deferred. She was born male as Hansel in East Berlin where her only cultural outlet was listening to the radio with her head in the oven. She was given a chance to escape that life in the form of a smitten American soldier. To make it to America as Luther’s wife, Hansel not only had to become Hedwig on paper but also below the waist.

A botched sex-change operation left Hedwig mutilated and divorced. It wasn’t until Hedwig met young Tommy Speck that she thought she finally found her other half, but Tommy too took a part of Hedwig and ran. This time it was the songs Hedwig wrote with him that he would then steal and parlay into a career as music superstar Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig now finds herself chasing Tommy’s world tour, able to open the fire exit of her venue and hear the ovation from his concert only a stone’s throw away.

As she deals with demon after demon from her past, it takes a village to keep her on track to finish the set. Like any respectable diva, Hedwig has a handful of backup singers in the forms of her long-suffering husband Yitzhak (Lacey Petrucci) and the sensational Angry Inch band (led by music director Nick Stamatakis on the keyboard). Ms. Petrucci completely disappears into her role as Yitzhak does so frequently in Hedwig’s shadow. Whenever she opens her mouth though, whether it’s for a soaring vocal or to speak in her spot-on German accent, she truly shines. Hedwig might be threatened by Yitzhak’s superior talent, but Mr. Chapman and Ms. Petrucci work together seamlessly onstage to make magic.

Offstage, the village that worked together to create Hedwig’s world is led by director Stephen Santa. Once again, he demonstrates the ability to mobilize a skilled team of designers to realize his unique vision for a show. Spray paint is used to visualize Hedwig’s pain on her body and through her history as it simultaneously adds even more color and texture to Britton Mauk’s grungy transformative set. Todd Nonn’s erratic technicolor lights will make you feel like you’re really at a rock concert while Christopher Patrick’s imaginative take on Hedwig’s signature hair and makeup and Anthony Sirk’s grotesquely glamorous costumes will have you convinced you’re looking at a true rock star.

PMT’s choice to have all performances of its Hedwig and the Angry Inch begin at 10 pm will probably have audiences who see it feeling like rock stars themselves. It will be late by the time you leave the theatre, but this stunning production is not one to sleep on.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays at the Gargaro through November 17th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Melissa Wallace

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