‘Hedwig & the Angry Inch:’ The unlikeliest of musicals, about a transgender East German punk rocker, is the season’s most satisfying show
This may be the only time you’ll hear me say this: Size doesn’t matter. There are plenty of enormous musicals that specialize in budget-busting production values and tap-dancing choruses and witches flying around on magical clocks. They can be phenomenal. But they are not evidence of superiority. Sometimes, all it takes is one man, one woman, a few musicians and a stool or two to blow the roof off the theater.
And right now, the Kalita Humphreys is roof-less.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical, of course, so you expect some electric guitar licks and drum solos to raise the decibel level beyond, say, the string arrangement of The Light in the Piazza. But it’s not the noise it produces that makes this staging (from Uptown Players) of the unlikely Broadway sensation exciting; it’s not even the energy. It’s the heart. Hedwig and the Angry Inch deceives you into expecting a campy trifle of a show, then reveals a heartbreaking pathos underneath.
Hedwig (Kyle Igneczi) seems a tragicomedy character at first. Born Hansel in East Germany during the Cold War, Hansel met an American soldier who convinced him to have a sex change so he could emigrate across the Iron Curtain to the West. The operation was a disaster, leaving Hedwig as neither fish nor fowl: An angry inch between her (his?) legs.
Hedwig overcomes the bad hand dealt her, shaping a pimply-faced teen into pop-music sensation Tommy Gnosis — think Justin Bieber with edge. Only once he hits it big, Tommy can’t be associated with a trans ex-communist sometime-prostitute songwriter (oh, that old cliché) and so while Hedwig delivers a sad, campy performance in an out-of-the-way theater, Tommy packs in screaming fan at the arena across the street. That’s where we join the action. And there’s a lot more to come.
Hedwig is dense with plot — it has Eugene O’Neill’s sense of history — wrapped up in a Rocky Horror Show package. And just like Rocky doesn’t work without a charismatic Frank-N-Furter, a lot rests on Hedwig’s shoulders. And Igneczi nails it.
There are a lot of moving parts in a performance like this, and Igneczi keeps them all in play simultaneously, from being onstage 95 percent of the time to costume changes, audience banter, comic riffs, soaring vocals and hairpin emotional turns. There’s nary a misstep all evening, and from an anthem like “Tear Me Down” to a ballad like “Wicked Little Town,” his interpretation is flawless. But despite stealing to focus, Grace Neeley manages countless memorable moments as well, playing Hedwig’s gender-bending lover Yitzhak.
Director Jeremy Dumont’s grasp on the material, and its potential to move the heart as much as the feet, gives Hedwig authenticity as a rock concert and credibility as legitimate theater. Underestimate this show at your peril; it’s a stunning capper to the summer season, a musical to get your excited about theatergoing.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2015.