By Dale King
Catharsis and storytelling mix musically and, in the end, triumphantly, in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a turbulent, gender-unspecific narrative being staged with passion and powerhouse music at the Lake Worth Playhouse through much of June – LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
The show concludes the downtown venue’s successful effort to pull together an in-person season of stage productions starting in late 2020, 10 months after a global pandemic forced the Lake Avenue theatrical hall – and other performance centers around the world – to shut down.
Hedwig, which opened Off-Broadway in the late 1990s and eventually hit the Great White Way, was written by John Cameron Mitchell, with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Mitchell based the wicked and outlandishly naughty yarn on his own Army brat childhood. Hedwig and all his/her idiosyncrasies are derived from memories of a trailer park prostitute he knew.
The onstage Hedwig has morphed from a “girly-boy” child to the star of this angst-riddled seriocomedy.
Mitchell even played Hedwig on Broadway, but couldn’t match the portrayal by TV actor Neil Patrick Harris, whose turn as the musical’s lead is apparently considered the gold standard of Hedwig. LWP’s male/female lead, Ryan Michael James, even gives Harris’ performance a nod during the local show as he does a masterful job of bringing the sexually bedeviled character to life.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a funny, yet heartbreaking production about a person bereft of specifics, lacking even gender or identity. He/she begins life as Hansel, a gender-undefined boy/girl from Communist East Berlin.
Neglected by his mother and molested by his solder dad, he is seduced as a teen by another military man who takes him to America in female guise. Surgery to give the poor soul a gender is botched, leaving him/her with an “angry inch” of malformed genitalia.
After a spate of rejections, the person now known as Hedwig becomes a stage singer with a mixed, ragtag wardrobe and an undefined horde of songs. The show’s score smacks of heavy metal 1960s songs tempered with a 1980s twist.
This isn’t a show just for those identifying as LGBTQ+. “’Hedwig’ owes much of its appeal to the universal themes it embodies,” said director Sabrina Lynn Gore, a singer and actor herself and former managing director of Outré Theater Company.
“Hedwig’s struggles are not unique – the quest for individuality, the struggle to accept oneself and the desire to find love. These are all human struggles that have no gender, race, religion or sexuality.”
The Lake Worth performance taps two fine actors with exceptional voices, qualities definitely needed to sustain the rock-heavy level of songs. Gabi Gonzalez portrays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “husband” and second-in-command vocalist, who is largely relegated to the rear of the stage for much of the show.
The two-person cast receives some seriously emphatic musical backing from a four-person ensemble – the first live band at an LWP show this season. Musical director/pianist Roger Blankenship leads the band with Brian Russell on guitar, Hunter Isbell on bass and Phil Tucciarone on drums and background vocals.
The Lake Worth performance is set against a backdrop of what appears to be a wall of galvanized steel hurricane shutters. The stage is two-level, with microphones on both. Appropriately, the production floor is strewn with unspecific flotsam and jetsam, including a blonde and pink wig that takes on particular importance late in the production.
Both characters – Hedwig and Yitzhak – lack definitive gender, apparently, by design. Hedwig seems jovial, engaging the audience up front with banter steeped with talk of oral and manipulative sex.
But as he vocalizes, his anger grows, and his focus weakens. “Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love” and “Sugar Daddy” do little to advance his cause or soothe his temperament, but the song, “Angry Inch,” hits a nerve. It’s explicitly biographical and exposes Hedwig’s inner turmoil – not to mention it’s the name of Hedwig’s backup band.
Several songs later, he bolts to the rear of the stage, tearing off the remains of a fringy dress, sequined black evening gown and Tina Turner-style wig. He is left largely undressed – and vulnerable but for a pair of black shorts.
The show has reached a turning point – and Yitzhak has to take over.
What follows is an apparent resolution of turmoil within both characters. Playwright Mitchell, quoted in the program, says: “There’s an understanding that perhaps [Hedwig] can let go of the bitterness, let go of the victimhood, let go of the pronouns, let go of whatever. In the end, she walks into the world naked as if to say, ‘This is me.’”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is playing through June 20 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visiting www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.