A Touching, Tragic Tale

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Theo Ubique. (Austin D. Oie Photography)

 3 1/2 stars

First of all be warned. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch, may not appeal to every taste. Audiences who attend this four-time, 2014 Tony Award-winning musical should be comfortable with in-your-face performances, deafening rock music, blinding concert lighting and 95 minutes of adult humor and a brazenly bold backstory.

The theatergoer who considers Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe the hallmarks of the American musical probably won’t love a show that’s this garish and loud. However, younger, less conservative audiences, as well as the many devotees of this cult musical, will find everything to love about Theo Ubique’s finale to their first season, now playing in Evanston through July 28.

The show began as a modest little rock musical that told the story of Hedwig Schmidt, a young, queer, glam, rock singer who underwent gender reassignment surgery.

The musical opened Off-Broadway at the tiny Jane Street Theatre in 1998, where it played for two years. The show imagined that this wannabe punk rocker from Communist East Germany, now relocated to the United States, is touring the country with his band, cynically called The Angry Inch.

He’s accompanied by three backup singers that include his boyfriend, Yitzhak. Since they’re relatively unknown, and only a third-rate musical group at best, it’s conceivable that the band’s destined to play small, out-of-the-way venues.

John Cameron Mitchell, the show’s book writer, originated the title role. Stephen Trask who composed the music and lyrics, also originally provided the onstage accompaniment with his own band, Cheater. The production went on to win the Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical.

When New York director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”) staged a 2014 Broadway revival at the larger Belasco Theatre, the modest concert musical became a huge, full-scale production. He re-imagined the show as bigger and flashier.

It was written into the revised script that, since another Broadway musical entitled “Hurt Locker: the Musical” had closed the previous day before it had even completed its first performance, the Belasco was now available. Using the leftover sets and special effects, Hedwig and the Angry Inch took over the stage the following evening.

Neil Patrick Harris headlined as Hedwig, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, and was succeeded by other name performers such as Darren Criss, Taye Diggs, Andrew Rannells, Anthony Rapp and Michael C. Hall.

At the invitation of Chicago’s much-lauded Artistic Director, Fred Anzevino, the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre just happened to be available for a new act. The production is under the guidance of guest director, Toma Tavares Langston who returns from Michigan to helm this stunning production. He may be  remembered for having worked his magic with several past Theo Ubique productions, such as  “Cabaret” and “Evita.”

As it turns out, this space is the perfect venue for presenting a musical that despite seeming so big and boisterous, is really an intimate and very personal story.

It’s a tale filled with hurt, anger, love and redemption. Through its playlist of loud electronic music peppered with lyrics that are sometimes difficult to understand, Hedwig shares his life story, mostly through song. However, it’s the character’s heartfelt, quieter reminisces that speak loudest and feel the most honest.

As Hedwig, actor Will Lidke is simply astounding. Remembered for his critically acclaimed portrayal of Seymour in Drury Lane’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Lidke makes this role entirely his own.

Strutting around the stage in Robert S. Kuhn’s wickedly wonderful patchwork frocks, fringed mini skirts and high-heeled boots and an array of Keith Ryan’s gigantic wigs, Lidke commands the majority of the show’s musical and emotional challenges.

Lidke’s tearing around the playing area, cavorting on a stripper’s pole and flirting with individual audience members is a tribute to the actor’s physical dexterity and comfort in this role.

However humorous, Lidke’s finest moments come in the quieter, more introspective scenes when he’s confessing to us Hedwig’s touching, tragic past.

We learn that he was originally a handsome little boy named Hansel. Raised by a single mother, Hansel realized at a very early age he wasn’t like the other boys. As a teenager he met and fell in love with American soldier Luther Robinson.

Before Luther could marry him Hansel needed to have the surgery that would physically transform him into a woman. His mother referred her son to a doctor, who would perform the operation, and then gave Hansel her name, Hedwig. The surgery wasn’t successful and Hedwig was left with an inch of his male genitalia, leaving him in limbo, somewhere between being a man and a woman.

Hedwig’s story continues in America as a performer, song writer and a lonely individual seeking his other true half and life partner. Somewhere along the way, Hedwig met Yitzhak, a Jewish drag performer. He fell in love with him and now Yitzhak accompanies Hedwig on his cross-country tour, using the young man as his personal assistant and backup singer.

However, Hedwig makes Yitzhak promise to give up drag so as not to upstage the star. But the young man, who loves Hedwig, and takes considerable abuse from him, still dreams of performing as a woman.

Brittney Brown who Chicago audiences recently enjoyed in “Poseidon: An Upside Down Musical,” is magnificent as Yitzhak. Meeting all the musical and dramatic demands of this show, Brown manages to garner the greatest ovation at curtain call.

Hedwig’s band led by Jeff Award-winning musical director, arranger and keyboard master artist, Jeremy Ramey, is exceptional. Often accompanying the singers at an ear-splitting volume (earplugs are offered at the door), the band includes Perry Cowdery and Jakob Smith on guitar, Joseph Drzemiecki on bass and Carlos Mendoza on percussion. Hedwig’s two backup singers who also play cameo roles throughout the musical, are the talented Adriana Tronco and Jacob Gilchrist.

Toma Tavares Langston’s production, while perhaps not a musical to everyone’s taste, is beautifully directed, produced and performed. With two exceptional actor/singers in the leading roles, a pair of gifted backup singers supporting them and a brilliant band accompanying the entire show, this production will long be remembered for being a touching, tuneful tale about a young artist trying to find his way in the world.

DETAILS: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard St., Evanston, through July 28, 2019. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets and other information call  (773) 347-1109 or visit Theo-U.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheatreInChicago.


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