Curtain Critic: The powerhouse performance of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

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“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” plays out in the intimate space of the Phoenix Theatre from Sept. 20 to Nov. 12. (Courtesy of Phoenix Theatre)

Prepare your ears, but don’t bring earbuds: if you do, Hedwig might be tempted to stroll over and pluck them out before reprimanding you in a cheeky German accent.

Throughout the show, Hedwig interacts with the audience and references Phoenix culture, enmeshing her world with the audience’s so that it’s easy to forget she isn’t a real rock star touring throughout the United States. “Hedwig” is a bold, brilliant and fiercely creative play, with an incredible story and songs to match.

Even before the show starts, a viewer’s eardrums are liable to vibrate from the electrifying thrumming of the four-person musical powerhouse that is the “Angry Inch.” Vivacious, talented and proudly androgynous, the “Angry Inch” transports guests from a fancy theater to a lively rock concert with covers of classic songs from the 1980s before Hedwig takes the stage.

Although technically Hedwig’s backup band, each performer adds their own unique flavor to the show: Lauren McKay jumps on the stage and pounds away on the bass, Michelle Chin jams on the drums and sings in German, Miles Plant hops and grins in a black tutu while playing piano and Cullen Law cheekily interrupts Hedwig with electric guitar solos.

Caleb Reese showcases his remarkable vocal range as the titular Hedwig, a transgender rock musician who loves music and raunchy jokes in equal measure.

Hedwig, along with her husband Yitzhak and “internationally ignored” band, travel throughout the U.S. to follow the tour of Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s former lover who ran off with her songs and skyrocketed to stardom.

One of the most beautiful songs is “Origin of Love,” which expresses Hedwig’s desire to find her soulmate so she can become whole. Near the end, Yitzhak and Hedwig stand back-to-back as their voices blend together in a beautiful harmony. Lighting designer Daniel Black illuminates the couple in a soft white spotlight, which dramatically lights up the couple and foreshadows Hedwig’s problematic need for power: she faces the light, drinking up most of its rays, while Yitzhak faces the other direction, bathed in darkness.

This power imbalance is made oblique later on in the play, when Hedwig cheerfully reminisces about how she sabotaged Yitzhak’s career as a drag dancer: “I told him, ‘I’ll marry you on the condition that a wig never touch your head again.’ And we’ve been inseparable ever since!”

Yitzhak (Alyssa Chiarello) shines from Hedwig’s shadow with a powerful voice that brings goosebumps, especially during a scene in which she sings lines from “I Will Always Love You” by Celine Dion in a soft, haunting voice. Dressed in a black studded jacket and ripped dark jeans, Chiarello brings Yitzhak to life while striding through the stage, belting powerful tunes into the microphone or hunching down submissively at Hedwig’s reprimands.

Chiarello and Reese bless their characters with loud, powerful voices that can switch from booming rock ‘n’ roll roars to soulful songs at the drop of a hat. To call their voices angelic would fail to encompass the raw range of emotions their singing portrays through notes that soar to the sky and tumble down to earth.

No moment in “Hedwig” is more heart-stopping than its animalistic climax, “Exquisite Corpse,” in which Hedwig sings about all of the pieces of herself she has given out. Though “singing” might not be the right word, as her lyrics belt out from her in a vengeful, raspy scream that shocks the theater as Hedwig falls to the floor and shakes violently while calling out about “the scar map across my body.”

Behind her love of music, performance and humor, Hedwig is a broken person whose very identity has been ripped from her by the various loves throughout her life: her first husband demanded that she undergo a botched sex operation before marriage, permanently mutilating her, while Tommy damaged her very soul by abandoning her.

It is only after “Exquisite Corpse” that Hedwig reconciles her masculine and feminine identities. After, she runs to the back of the stage and pushes down her black dress and rips off her wig, the symbol of her female identity. Blinding red and black lightning flashes across the stage and onto the audience’s eyes, coupled with wild, loud, distorted music to create a long, disturbing and nightmarish transformation sequence.

At the end of the song, Hedwig emerges without her elaborate wigs or heavy makeup. Hedwig has transformed into her rival Tommy Gnosis, in which she sings a heart-wrenching, soulful reprise of “Wicked Little Town.” In a brilliant costuming decision by Adriana Diaz, Hedwig’s little black dress has been folded to work as a pair of shorts, emphasizing her physical as well as mental metamorphosis.

It is through this performance that Hedwig reclaims her identity and realizes that she is a whole person on her own. In a moment of clarity and love, she gives Yitzhak one of her wigs, allowing her husband to reclaim his long-lost feminine identity.

Yitzhak later emerges on stage in full drag, wearing a dazzling dress interwoven with electric lightning. Her triumphant performance of “Midnight Radio” ends the play on a high note, leaving the tumultuous, passionate and wildly creative “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on a high note.

The cult classic “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” plays out in the intimate space of the Phoenix Theatre from Sept. 20 to Nov. 12.

Contact the columnist at sosulli2@asu.edu

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