By David Dixon
Some musicals become increasingly well-known over time. One such example is the edgy rock musical comedy-drama, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
With a book written by John Cameron Mitchell, who originally starred as Hedwig Robinson himself, the show follows a genderqueer East German rock singer. It was an Off-Broadway hit at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998 and later adapted into an acclaimed (although financially unsuccessful) movie that starred Mitchell and was written and directed by him as well. This musical didn’t get mainstream attention until it was staged in 2014 at the Belasco Theatre, starring Neil Patrick Harris.
While the Broadway staging featured several script changes, including a subplot involving a fictitious “Hurt Locker” musical, the 20th Anniversary Legacy Production at the Diversionary Theatre is a more traditional adaptation, with some San Diego humor thrown in for good measure.
Hedwig (non-binary performer, Jeremy Wilson) is visiting San Diego with her Jewish former drag queen husband, Yitzhak (Cashae Monya) and rock band, the Angry Inch, to perform and narrate her life story. Wearing a variety of colorful Peter Herman wigs, she discusses her awkward adolescence, her love of music, and flawed relationships with men.
The singer is especially hostile when discussing her ex-boyfriend, a successful rocker Tommy Gnosis (voiced by Wilson on Matt Lescault-Wood’s audio), as she claims he doesn’t give her credit for his success. Since Tommy is performing across the street, Hedwig’s dissatisfaction and rage grows throughout the concert.
Mitchell’s dialogue is often very funny, with crude puns and in-your-face raunchy jokes that reference famous rock stars and songs. He also displays Hedwig’s cruel behavior towards her husband, which makes the charismatic vocalist sometimes very unlikable.
Wilson, onstage for almost the entire evening, acts and energetically sings and dances to Michael Mizerany’s sensual choreography. It’s a performance that requires total commitment from beginning to end, and Wilson never seems overwhelmed by the challenge.
Monya gets plenty of memorable moments as well, and sings with rawness and feeling in songs such as “Tear Me Down” and “Exquisite Corpse.”
A creative choice from Artistic Director Matt M. Morrow was his decision to have Monya wear sunglasses for a big portion of the performance. I wasn’t sure at first if this would work, given how expressive Monya can be. Hence, for the first half, Monya’s portrayal relies more on her strong vocals and body language to carry the performance. Morrow’s decision pays off later when Monya takes off her sunglasses, and audiences see in her eyes the internal pain that Hedwig has caused Yitzhak throughout their marriage.
In Stephen Trask’s musical numbers, the stars are backed by Hedwig’s band, which is made up of keyboardist Patrick Marion, guitarist Jim Mooney, bassist Linda Libby and drummer David Rumley. Not only do they bring a punk rock edge to the production, but they also are given visually distinct looks through Elisa Benzoni’s cool costumes.
The one-act production runs for 105 minutes and Morrow creates the atmosphere of a rock concert, rather than that of a traditional musical. Justin Humphres’ set, Curtis Mueller’s lighting, and Adam J. Thompson’s projections all contribute to the hallucinatory atmosphere.
While the music elements are a big draw of the show, Morrow is still able to convey Mitchell’s moving message about personal acceptance. It’s a theme that will likely appeal to a lot of LGBT theatergoers.
Morrow’s rendition is both a thrilling love letter to rock and roll and a fascinating look at gender identity. Twenty years later, Mitchell’s original narrative might be an even bigger draw for “ladies and gentlemen, and everyone in between.”
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is running at the Diversionary Theatre through May 5. For tickets or more information, visit diversionary.org or call 1-619-220-6830.
— David Dixon is a freelance film and theater writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.