A Heck of A Fun Time at Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Maybe you’d be hard-pressed to believe that a botched sex-change operation could be a winning premise for a feel-good night of musical theatre, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch proved a lot more fun and a lot more poignant than its vulgar title and peculiar subject matter might at first suggest. Playing until June 20th at the Lake Worth Playhouse, this unconventional musical by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell first premiered off-Broadway in 1998, and later spawned a 2001 film version and a Tony-winning Broadway revival. 

And in a way, Hedwig may have been ahead of its time. While discussions about the fluidity of gender are just now making their way towards the mainstream, Hedwig’s story of coming to terms with an identity that exists somewhere between male and female is certainly an interesting one to revisit in this day and age, as well as a fittingly queer pick for 2021’s pride month!

In fact, the character reminded us of the occasion early on in the evening, as well as spouted off a few other ad-libs tailored to our Lake Worth locale. Like the last Playhouse show I attended, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Hedwig and the Angry Inch takes place during a concert at which the performer and main character struggles to please the crowd, rather than become overwhelmed by her troubled past.

As a young “girly-boy” named Hansel, Hedwig was coerced by an older “sugar daddy” into a sex-change operation that would allow her to escape communist East Germany as his wife. But all Hedwig is left with between her legs is that titular “angry inch,” and the relationship crumbles soon after the two arrive in the United States. Yet instead of letting the tragedy tear her down, Hedwig cultivates a new identity as the glamorous lady rock star that we now encounter her as. 

Small casts allow for a safer space during COVID and these two concert-style plays provide a sort of meta-commentary on the psychological protection offered by performance. While Billie Holiday learns that a gorgeous voice and alluring image can shield her from some of the slings and arrows of racism, Hedwig learns that once she puts on her “wig in a box,” she can feel like a beauty queen or a punk rock star. But not even the most perfectly applied mask of makeup can fully conceal its wearer, so it’s no surprise when cracks inevitably begin to appear in Hedwig’s foundation facade. 

Speaking of masks, this also may be a good time to note that while the Playhouse is still enforcing socially distanced seating, guests are no longer required to wear their masks while at their seats. This might be worth thinking twice about if you are in a group that’s at high risk for COVID complications. As a fully vaccinated and heretofore indestructible twentysomething, though, I felt plenty safe and ready to rock! 

Ryan Michael James as Hedwig and Gabi Gonzalez as Yitzhak.

It seemed the rest of the audience members in the fairly large and enthusiastic opening night agreed and a pandemic’s worth of pent-up energy also seemed to be fueling the play’s pitch perfect performers. Ryan Michael James disappears completely into the role of Hedwig, shamelessly conveying the character’s supreme confidence and over the top aura through scorching dialogue, impressive singing chops, and chaotic, expressive dance moves. Anyone who thinks androgyny isn’t sexy as hell might be hard-pressed after watching him show off his muscular, manly form in bewitching costumes like a little black dress!

Gabi Gonzalez is likewise excellent as Hedwig’s mostly subdued husband Yitzhak, vocally nailing both power ballads, softer harmonies, and rising to the occasion when it’s time for her character to let loose.

Yet James has the harder job of conveying not only Hedwigs’ surface charisma but an undercurrent of bitterness and rage engendered by the fact that Hedwig’s feminine identity hasn’t led her to professional success or romantic happiness. This is indicated in part by her frequent references to her former protege and love interest Tommy Gnosis, who in-story, is playing to a far larger crowd next door.

Unfortunately, Hedwig’s technical elements left a little more to be desired than its acting did; the thunderous playing of the band occasionally made it difficult to decipher lyrics and fully appreciate the actor’s vocals. I also found some of the images projected onto the back wall rather hard to see clearly.

And while Hedwig was consistently entertaining and a heck of a good time, I enjoyed it more for its humor, its spectacle, and the talent on display than because I connected with the narrative. The fact that Hedwig’s story is mostly told through her recounting rather than enacted in the play robs it of some of its dramatic power, and because Hedwig’s tone is so irreverent and comedic throughout, I was sometimes unsure when I was actually supposed to be taking her plight seriously. 

I also found the implications of the male character Yitzhak being played by a woman confusingwhile I understand this to be a casting decision springing from the script rather than a choice made for this production in particular, seeing a male actor in this part would have made seeing the character given the chance to embrace his femininity even more moving. 

A few moments did leave a strong emotional impact. A scene where Hedwig describes a heart wrenching rejection when a suitor learns the truth about her past will likely resonate with anyone who’s ever felt insecure about appearance. And when Hedwig finally removes the trappings of her constructed persona, we catch a haunting glimpse of a vulnerable young person who never got a chance to discover who they were before having a fractured future forced on them by fate.

Though Hedwig is the last play of LWP’s 2020-2021 season, they’ll be back in July with We Will Rock You, and their 2021-2022 mainstage offerings will commence in October. And though this community theatre may not be at the top of most South Florida theatregoers’ hit lists, once more of our professional theatres have opened their doors, I don’t plan on discounting it any time soon. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my last few adventures at their quaint beachside abode, it looks like they have some exciting shows in store for the year ahead, especially in their more adventurous Black Box series. Can’t wait to check it all out!

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