Written by John Cameron Mitchell. Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Peter Askin. Jane Street Theatre, New York City.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch starts off as a kind of trashy joke. Waltzing up the aisle of the fabulously funky ballroom theater of a waterfront hotel that once housed the surviving crew members of the Titanic, John Cameron Mitchell sports a Barbara Mandrell cotton-candy wig, a fringed denim cowgirl camisole, and a flag-striped cape on the inside of which is spray-painted “Yankee Go Home . . . With Me!” As Hedwig, “a mere slip of a girly boy from Communist East Germany,” Mitchell parlays a brand of hoary stage patter that Bette Midler’s lounge persona Vicki Eydie might admire: “I always like a warm hand on my entrance.” Ba-da-boom! Hedwig is backed by a four-piece rock band dressed like Def Leppard circa 1987 and attended by her current “husband” Yitzak (Miriam Shor, disguised behind a greasepaint goatee), whom Hedwig says she rescued from a drag club in East Berlin where he was lip-synching to songs from Yentl under the drag name Crystal Nacht.

So, okay, you think you know what you’re watching: a rock & roll parody of your typical drag act. Have another drink, girl.The show consists of 10 songs performed by Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch, named after what remained from the botched sex-change she submitted to in order to marry a black GI who dumped her in a Kansas trailer park. Between songs, Hedwig spills out her sorry saga of hooking up with a geeky 16-year-old named Tommy Speck who unaccountably turned her on. They started writing songs together, she gave him a new name, and he went on to become Tommy Gnosis, superstar, who now plays stadiums while Hedwig languishes as “an internationally unknown song stylist.”

The corny yuks keep coming -- Hedwig opens the stage door and yells out, “Tommy, can you hear me?” -- yet as the show goes on you start thinking: Hmm. Mitchell’s not a bad singer, and that band (a real-life combo called Cheater, led by the show’s composer Stephen Trask) really cranks. Together they do a pretty creditable tribute to Iggy Pop/Lou Reed/Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie glam-rock. Plus, underneath the tacky wigs, Mitchell is still the same fantastic young actor who distinguished himself in the Broadway musical The Secret Garden and Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me (the sequel to The Normal Heart). He performs both halves of a dialogue between Hedwig and Tommy so nimbly that the characters seem to co-exist onstage.

Then something really trippy happens. During the strobe-light segue into the final number, “Midnight Radio,” Hedwig strips off her top, smashes herself with the tomatoes that served as falsies, paints a silver cross on her forehead and becomes charismatic bare-chested skinny-boy rock star Tommy Gnosis. When the show’s over, you can’t really be certain that the whole thing wasn’t entirely the garage-band fantasy of little Tommy Speck. And what seemed like a casual reference early on -- to the Aristotelian myth that we’re descended from round beings split by lightning and doomed to wander around searching for our other half -- turns out to be the theme of the show. Only in Mitchell’s queer version, we become whole by reuniting the male and female halves of ourselves -- even if it takes Dynel wigs and pop-star fantasies. It’s a sweet and substantial thought that, like the show itself, sneaks up on you by surprise.

The Advocate, March 31, 1998

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