By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan.com
When the Who Wants Cake? company takes the stage at the Ringwald Theatre, a little gender-bending is not a surprise.
But “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” pushes the envelope – an in-your-face musical about how a “slip of a girlie boy from communist East Berlin became the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you.” John Cameron Mitchell’s work opened off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater on Feb. 14, 1998, winning a Village Voice Obie Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.
The show continues through Nov. 7 at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale.
Hansel Schmid is the East German “slip of a girly boy” before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He meets a U.S. soldier, who falls in love with Hansel, and the two decide to marry.
However, in order to be married, the couple must consist of a man and a woman. Hansel’s mother gives her child her name and passport and finds a doctor to perform gender reassignment surgery. The back-alley operation is botched, however, leaving Hansel – now Hedwig – with the condition described in the title.
A year later, the now-divorced Hedwig lives in the U.S. Taking up music, she finds a protégé and lover; who, as “Tommy Gnosis,” reaches super-star status while Hedwig’s career never takes off.
A recurrent theme in “Hedwig” is derived from Plato’s “Symposium,” and is especially illustrated by the ballad “The Origin of Love.” The myth tells how the jealous gods split humans in two; we search the world for our missing half. Hedwig believes that Tommy is that other half, and if she can’t have him, she must destroy him.
The play is an extended monologue accompanied by rock music. We’re attending a performance on the concert tour of Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch.
Also on stage is her husband and back-up singer, Yitzak (the golden-voiced Sonja Marquis – and didn’t I warn you about gender reversals?). The music is loud, forceful and not showing its age after almost 14 years.
The members of The Angry Inch are David Dambacher on keyboard and guitar, Shawn Neal on drums and Jeff Sugamosto on guitar. Eric Gutman rounds out the quartet as musical director and bassist.
But this play goes nowhere without a convincing Hedwig, and Vince Kelley’s performance is a knock-out. Having seen Kelley in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Southern Baptist Sissies,” I expected a fine performance, but experience didn’t prepare me for the eerie androgyny he brings out of the role. Kelley and director Joe Plambeck have created an indelible image.
In his first design at the Ringwald, Matthew Arrington costumes Hedwig in the flash/trash style that we associate both with glam rock and successful female impersonators. Kudos to Katie Orwig and her rag-tag set design, which incorporates more mismatched cloth swatches than in the remnant bin at Joanne Fabrics. Also of note is the continuous video sequence by Dyan Bailey and Dave Davies that illustrates the narrative.
Edgy, provocative and unique, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is top-notch entertainment for adults. Leave the kiddies at home – “Hedwig” is too hot to handle! For ticket information and showtimes, go to EncoreMichigan.com.