To walk away you have to leave something behind. Be prepared to leave your judgements behind as you walk away from mainstream life and step into the glory, the glamour and pure wonderment that is Hedwig and The Angry Inch now appearing in the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts this summer of 2017. Directed by Michael Mayer, with Musical Staging by Spencer Liff and Musical Direction by Justin Craig, this transformative musical is an evocative explosion of emotional enigmas that will broaden your horizons, open your heart, and embrace your inner self— whoever that may be. A stunning journey emblazoned into the memory over the course of two hours, the evening’s show is a hyper-charged eruption of pathos and gnosis, wending knowledge and feeling over, around, and through one another all while backed against an amped and loaded grungy rocker musical score. You will leave transformed, eyes opened, heart opened; this is the musical experience of the summer.
Sensory overload is the phrase best suited for the visual aesthetic of the production, though not in a negative sense. There is so much happening across Julian Crouch’s scenic design that it’s difficult to pick a vocal point, though this enhances the experience of chaos that escalates throughout the production. Lighting Designer Kevin Adams embraces fully the duties of illuminating a rock-score musical; there is an indescribable intensity to some of the brighter lights Adams’ uses that border on blinding. Flooding the stage with lights that are finely tuned to the emotional infernos blasting out of the heavier and harder numbers, and softening those very same lights when the tone and mood of the musical numbers shifts, Adams’ light work is not only illuminating, but rather brilliant and impeccably matched to the show’s overall emotional verve. Thrown into that aesthetic mixture is Projection Designer Benjamin Pearcy (for 59 Productions) and Animation Designer John Bair (for Phosphene.) Both Pearcy and Bair work together to polish “The Origin of Love”— among other numbers and moments in the show— making it a remarkable thing to behold visually.
Hedwig is all about the wigs. Make-up and Wig Designer Mike Potter stacks those hair pieces mighty high for the titular character and they are glorious. Potter has a finesse woven into the style of not only the wigs used on Hedwig but those stacked on the animatronic bobbing mannequins during “Wig in a Box.” And Potter’s make-up plot is a fierce defining element of Hedwig’s overall appearance. Grandiose and glittery are just two of dozens of words that could be used to describe Costume Designer Arianne Phillips’ approach to the show. There’s more than plenty to marvel over when it comes to the various outfits— including the hair suit— featured on the singing diva. But Phillips’ most stunning piece in the production is the decadently posh purple glitz gown featured on Yitzhak at the finale of the show. The butterflies adorning the bustle are an astonishing representation of the transformative path that both characters take over the course of the show; incubating in the chrysalis of the stage only to morph into the beauty of their true inner selves.
Praises should be sung in the general direction of Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis as well. Both Hedwig and Yitzhak sport affected German sounds that are present yet not so thickly layered as to distort their speech. This element winds a finalization around the believability of the production, inviting the audience to invest their two hours into the lives of these characters with a sense of authenticity measured fully into the balance of things. Music Director Justin Craig— whose stage name for the show’s sake is Skszp— drives the energy of the band, aptly named “The Angry Inch”, and pushes each musical number ahead with a frenetic urgency. Craig, along with Matt Duncan on bass, Peter Yanowitz (at this performance) on drums, and Tim Mislock on guitar, electrify the band with outrageous emotions that translate clearly into each song that they play.
There is something to be said for making a show feel timeless. Director Michael Mayer gives this current production of Hedwig and The Angry Inch not only a timeless feel but a modern and relevant one. Many of the ad-libs and asides that Hedwig puts forth are politically charged and gravitate around the current presidential debacle in Washington. This was met with great approval ratings by the audience every time something humorous came up. These modernized references allow the audience to take one step closer to Hedwig, knowing that she exists in the world where we exist, and that despite all of her own personal troubles, she too shares the strife and struggles that we as a nation face at this time. Mayer is smart in his handling of this as well, it’s not overdone, just enough to keep the audience aware of the present-day setting, and not all of the modernized zingers are political, some are merely topical and this is much appreciated as well.
From the moment that Euan Morton takes the stage it is more than evident that the audience is in for quite the evening. It’s impossible— even if you’ve seen the show in any of its previous incarnations— to know what to expect from Morton as he truly makes Hedwig his own. There is a sass and a flare to the character which Morton channels primarily in his body language, occasionally letting his facial features reflect that ripened attitude as well. Watching Morton engage with the audience over the course of the evening is a rare and true delight as his sense of how and when to play— and how far he can push them— is sharply honed and creates a brilliant dynamic of engaging excitement for everyone in the house.
Hannah Corneau, as the oppressed and repressed Yitzhak, is a delight in the role. Watching Corneau’s facial expressions in response to the extremely unbalanced relationship that Yitzhak shares with Hedwig is remarkable; her facial features are exceptionally animated. What’s more stunning, however, is the gorgeous soprano sound that echoes from her when she sings both “The Long Grift” and the finale of “Midnight Radio.” Exceptionally gifted with a voice that can not only drop into a lower range with a gravely grit but superbly carry an upper range with strength and tenacity, Corneau is stellar for the part and plays it well against Morton’s Hedwig.
There is depth and dynamism to Morton’s titular portrayal. Telling a story with fluidity and ease, Morton slides in and out of memory with a graceful nostalgia that is perfectly balanced: half irreverently humorous and half harrowingly serious. Traversing a 360-degree spectrum of emotions throughout the course of the performance, Morton astonishes the audience with his versatility and his honesty, which doesn’t arise until the latter end of the show. The character of Hedwig is an artificial construct; she is a surface parade of everything she believes she’s meant to be and Morton parades that with great decadence through the early phases of the show. But layer by layer, Morton peels back the artifice and reveals a tortured and wounded soul. By the time he lands the striking 11 o’clock number “Midnight Radio” his raw and bleeding heart is exposed in his voice and there is such an earnest expression of acceptance happening that it’s jaw-dropping.
Morton channels rage like a tornado touching down in the plains when he launches into “Angry Inch.” This, like several other of the rocker ballads featured in the production, are brutal and vicious; this number in particular is alive with a blazing inferno of feeling, all blasting out of Morton and backed readily by the band and the wicked, nearly-blinding maelstrom of lights flashing behind them. “Wicked Little Town”— in its first incarnation— gives one pause, takes the breath away ever so slightly; Morton takes this number delicately under his wing and once again showcases his versatility as a performer here. The entire show vibrates on the edge of oblivion with Morton hanging in the balance by a single emotional tether; the production is astonishing and Morton delivers a phenomenal performance as Hedwig.
There is much to be experienced, much to be learned. So put on some make-up, turn up the tape deck, and get the wig down off the shelf— and make sure that you get yourself— to see Hedwig and The Angry Inch before it transforms out of Washington DC this summer.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
Hedwig and The Angry Inch plays through July 2, 2017 in the Eisenhower Theatre of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.