Encore Michigan

‘Hedwig’ soars with Detroit Public Theatre at Ant Hall

Review February 16, 2020 Angela Colombo

HAMTRAMCK, Mich.–According to a story called “The Origin of Love” which is based on a speech given by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, each of us are one part of two halves that were forcibly separated. And our other half is wandering around in the world waiting to be reunited and we must find it.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of a genderqueer east German singer and her search of her other half on her quest for love and stardom. In this high energy, kick ass rock musical we come to know Hedwig, the victim of a botched sex change operation who ends up living in a trailer in Kansas.

Scott Anthony Joy plays Hedwig, singing with a masterful voice that is determined and at times plaintiff, switching off between rude and playful. With just the right amount of sass and ‘tude, Joy gives us Hedwig whose pain we suffer, and whose aspirations we savor.

HEDWIG makes her entrance strutting down the Ant Theater’s aisle, a guitar squealing a majestic Jimi Hendrix-like version of America the Beautiful. She opens her muslin cape wide to resemble the wings of a bird only on these wings is the semblance of the American flag.

The music is steeped in the glam rock style of David Bowie (who co-produced the Los Angeles production of the show) Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The set is a feast for the eyes, a harlequin and glittery glam sensation. In Detroit Public’s dazzling production, Scott Joy interjects local references getting cheers from an audience full of proud Detroit and Hamtramck residents.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell, HEDWIG was developed in NYC drag bars and rock venues of the late 90s instead of a theater setting in order to maintain its rock energy. Director Courtney Burkett said they chose Ant Hall for the production because they wanted it to be the kind of immersive theatrical experience that the show’s creators had in mind. Burkett said “Hedwig feels like an old friend” to her. “I have seen her in many forms – in multiple productions…and every time…I learn something about myself and the world we live in by looking at the world through Hedwig’s eyes.”

Hedwig begins her story in 1961 when the Berlin Wall goes up. She started out as Hansel Schmidt, “a slip of a girly boy” growing up in East Berlin with a mother who is cold and unaffectionate. The family is abandoned by Hedwig’s American GI father at the age of one. Lonely and confused as he becomes an adolescent, the boy comforts himself by listening to western rock music, letting it transport him to another place, another life. Hansel becomes fascinated with finding her other half, a story rendered to us in the song “The Origin of Love.”

At 20, Hansel falls in love with Luther, an American soldier stationed in Berlin, who convinces him to marry and move to America with him, but in order to do that, by the standards of the time, they would need to be a man and a woman. Luther convinces Hansel to “leave something behind.” However the sex change operation is botched, leaving who is now Hedwig with a dysfunctional one-inch mound of flesh between her legs. “Six inches forward and five inches back, I got an angry inch,” goes the song she furiously belts out. But she wanted out of East Berlin, out of her life there so she could continue her pursuit and saw this as her only ticket. After emigrating to Kansas, the Berlin wall falls, and on the same day that happens, Hedwig finds herself abandoned by Luther. And realizes the violent self-sacrifice was for naught. “We thought the wall would stand forever but now that it’s gone we don’t know who we are anymore,” she sings.

The character of Hedwig was inspired by John Cameron Mitchell’s family babysitter, a divorced, German ex pat, ex Army wife who moonlighted as a prostitute at her trailer park home in Junction City, Kansas. The character of Tommy Gnosis was based on Mitchell.

Hedwig is following Tommy Gnosis (much more successful) tour, around the country, disgruntled because she cowrote the songs with Gnosis that he has become famous for but has gotten no credit. Also resentful because she believes Tommy is her other half but he wants nothing to do with her after finding out she is not biologically female. Hedwig is playing in an adjoining venue. The audience watches Hedwig open a door onstage and look out and listen wistfully, and we can hear Gnosis’s concert. Hedwig tells the audience her story, intent on exploiting Gnosis’s near career-ending car crash that happened while he was high and getting oral sex from Hedwig herself.

Lily Talevski plays Yitzak, the tough band member, apparently undocumented, and Hedwig’s husband, more than a friend but less than a soulmate. Their love-hate, codependent relationship plays out before us with Hedwig keeping Yitzak under her thumb by regularly threatening immigration.

Hedwig’s band, on stage at all times, is made up of a drummer, a bass and an electric guitarist, keyboardist and Yitzak. The band plays the music for the songs of this celebrated soundtrack, unfolding the poignant story through sometimes hard-hitting, sometimes irreverent lyrics. HEDWIG is like being served a side of rock and roll concert with your Broadway entree. Or maybe it’s really a rock concert with a side of Broadway.

The original musical opened Off-Broadway in 1998 and won the Obie Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. It has been produced all over the world in hundreds of stage productions. In 2014 the show opened on Broadway winning the year’s Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.

This show is a delight for the senses and the soul. Scott Anthony Joy gives a performance that draws us in and titillates us, then transforms before our eyes. No spoilers here, what happens is too delicious to serve on a saucer. See the show at Ant Hall in Hamtramck, running weekends through Feb. 29.

Week of 10/19/2020

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