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Review- “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Golden Gate Theatre – by Harry Duke

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Theater Review- Hedwig and the Angry Inch
at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francsico – by Harry Duke

by Harry Duke

My first experience with Hedwig and the Angry Inch was in 2001, when the film adaptation of the 1998 John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask Off-Broadway rock musical was released with expectations of becoming the next Rocky Horror Picture ShowThe film flopped (much like Rocky Horror), but my friends and I were quite taken by Hedwig’s story, from her identity struggles, her relationships, her botched sex change operation, her abandonments to her personal triumph and survival, all set to a terrific rock score. 

Darren CrissThe stage version made it San Francisco in 2002 and planted itself at the wonderfully weathered Victoria Theatre for an extended run. I attended this production and found myself absolutely blown away by the power of the performances. As good as the film was, it didn’t come close to making the emotional connection with its audience as that production did. It was one of the best nights of theatre I had ever experienced to that time and remains so today.

In the decade and a half that’s passed since then, I’ve kept my eyes open for another Bay Area production, hoping to recreate that experience with friends and share it with other theatregoers. Word that a Broadway production would be mounted in 2014 was welcome news, and the announcement that the national tour would begin in San Francisco seemed fitting.

And so, it has arrived with all the trappings that come with a successful Broadway run – more stage space, more star power, more lights, more pyrotechnics, more costumes, more everything - and it is the lesser for it. 

What’s missing from this production is heart. The original story followed Hedwig and her band as they play small houses and dives on a sort of “shadow tour” of rock superstar Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s former lover who’s made it big by recording and performing Hedwig’s (unattributed) songs. The venues for the original show matched this story setting. One could imagine Hedwig and the Angry Inch being booked into the Victoria Theatre and houses like it. But a Broadway house or the Golden Gate Theatre? As that would simply be too much to accomplish even a modicum of suspension of belief, a new surrounding story was developed to explain their appearance at such a venue. It’s amusing but slight and is the first indication that the show wouldn’t be what it once was as it finds itself buried under a Broadway budget.

Darren Criss is a fine performer but he simply doesn’t disappear in the character, even under a small fortune’s worth of costumes and wigs. Every minute he is on stage you are aware that you are watching Darren Criss as Hedwig, not Hedwig herself. Consequently, the character’s desires, yearning, anger, bitterness and pain never seem genuine. Additionally, Mr. Criss’s attempt to convey Hedwig’s internal struggles with long moments of reflection seemed interminable and contributed to this performance’s surprisingly sluggish page.

Hedwig’s biting humor does come through, but that is more a function of the writing than the performance. One side note – I know most audiences love it, but I find the addition of topical humor (in this case, a Trump reference) extremely detrimental to a show. Yes, it gets a laugh, but it takes you right out of the world the show is trying to sustain. It’s cheap, easy, and unnecessary. 

Lena HallLena Hall does accomplish what Mr. Criss doesn’t and recreates her Tony Award-winning role as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s Jewish Croatian backup singer, assistant, former drag queen and current husband. Ms. Hall does much with little, and her triumphant final moments on stage were the show’s highlight. Her vocals in particular made me wonder if I might have been better off seeing one of the two weekly performances in which she takes on the role of Hedwig. 

What heart does remain in this show comes from the songs which manage to retain much of their power and meaning despite their trappings, but even that couldn’t overcome this show’s main problem – It has done the very thing of which Hedwig accuses Tommy.

“Hedwig…” has sold her soul for spectacle.      

 

SHNSF presents Hedwig and the Angry Inch  through October 30, Tues – Sat @ 8pm, Wed, Sat, Sun @ 2pm
SHN Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor St
San Francisco, CA 94102
www.shnsf.com

Photos by Joan Marcus/SHN