[The New Every(wo)man]
The legacy of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of modest beginnings, with Mitchell playing the title character Off-Broadway back in 1998. That it went on to become a cult film and subsequently a Broadway and international success is a testament to the quality and originality of its material. Even now in 2019, with growing queer representation on our stage and screens, Hedwig still feels like a breath of fresh air in a cultural landscape that often regurgitates the same stale narratives. Where else would the story of an androgynous German lad named Hansel who undergoes gender reassignment surgery to become struggling rockstar Hedwig not only exist but be treated with a real dignity and respect?
While musical theatre is often the domain of sledgehammer-like subtlety, Mitchell’s script and Trask’s lyrics weave Hedwig’s myriad themes of love and survival against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, immigrant dreams and rock and roll with surprising grace. No matter how far-fetched the story sounds, it is grounded in the reality of a single person baring their soul and self to the audience.
Unlike The Court Theatre’s annual summer musical, Hedwig is a comparatively minimalist affair with few performers, utilising a cabaret-esque format rather than having a dramatic narrative unfold in front of us in real time. Still, the production values are high and director Michael Lee Porter honours the glamrock aesthetic of the world. With the support of set designer Julian Southgate, he places us in a garage studio setup alongside the automobile centerpiece fans will have come to expect. It’s an appropriate symbol in which Hedwig’s narrative is effectively a metaphorical road trip through her life.
For what requires few setpieces, the heavy-lifting forced upon the star of the show is tremendous, and Adam Rennie handles every inch of the role with a delicate balance, never signposting the narrative trajectory of Hedwig’s journey too clearly, and allowing us to discover and unpeel layers of her history and troubled past alongside her. Even as someone familiar with the story, I found myself slipping into the trap of Hedwig’s caustic wit and humour, but under all the double entendres, sexual innuendos and allusions there is a beating heart that threatens to burst out bloody from the bitchy exterior. Though accompanied and contrasted by the lovable Phoebe Hurtst’s Yitzhak, who lends her angelic voice to a few songs, this is undeniably Rennie’s show through and through. And it’s a demanding performance, in that the actor is asked to be on stage practically at all times for the full 100 minute running time of the show.
As musical director Luke Di Somma brings the same savvy that made Kate Sheppard musical That Bloody Woman so effective – an understanding of how something intimate in scale can be epic in feeling. Who could resist ‘The Origin of Love’ with its romantic notions of ‘the one’ and quirky projected animation? And few songs display economy of storytelling better than ‘Angry Inch’ and ‘Wig in a Box’ or display the sheer ecstatic joy of ‘Midnight Radio’. There were many moments I could feel myself melting inside out as the music and lyrics poured out from the stage.
A heartfelt ode to the outsider and individual rather than the masses, resisting cheap and easy sentimentality, Hedwig is an antidote to the typical Broadway musical – despite having become exactly that. But, for all its ability to inspire emotion, this production doesn’t always nail the rock and roll sensibility that the music and character often pay homage to. While the songs are always deeply moving and swoonworthy, I occasionally ached to be blown away on a viscerally physical level. To feel the decibels in my ears or the vibrations beneath my feet. That the shift to the Court as a venue both literally and within the show’s story results in a loss of its grit is perhaps inevitable, but there were moments that Hedwig occasionally felt like a naughty joke in drag rather than a daringly subversive challenge to the status quo.
Despite a few reservations, there’s no doubt even the most hardened critic of musical theatre will find Hedwig’s charms irresistible. Within the simplicity of the show’s presentation is a deep well of complex, stirring emotions that are universal. In many respects, Hedwig is the perfect musical for The Court and a city still figuring out its shifting identity. It is, after all, an ode to difference and change. And if the sharp edges of what made the show groundbreaking seem somewhat sanded down, perhaps the mainstreaming of a story originally built for the fringes speaks to something positive and affirming: that everyone feels like an outsider sometimes.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays at Christchurch’s The Court Theatre until 1 June.