“Whether you like it or not…Hedwig!” LA’s Pantages Theatre is the latest home of the national tour of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical that grips your attention in its first minutes and never lets go. With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig premiered Off-Broadway in 1998 and inspired a movie of the same name in 2001. In 2014 it opened on Broadway for the first time and that production, directed by Michael Mayer, is now on the road. Darren Criss, one of six actors to play the role during the Broadway run, stars here alongside Tony winner Lena Hall as Yitzhak. Except, this time, there’s a twist—for select performances in LA and in San Francisco previously, Hall is playing Hedwig, becoming the first woman to play both roles (not at the same time, of course—during her Hedwig nights understudy Shannon Conley is Yitzhak). I was fortunate enough to take in two performances on back-to-back nights, one starring Criss and one starring Hall.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch unfolds in real time as a performance of transgender songwriter and performer Hedwig Robinson’s musical act with her band, The Angry Inch, which includes her husband, Yitzhak. The premise for this production, created to explain Hedwig’s presence in a theater, is that after Hurt Locker the Musical opened the previous night and closed at intermission, the theater’s owners agreed to let Hedwig use the set for one performance only. Hedwig describes her life story, beginning when she was a boy in east Berlin. As a young adult, Hedwig meets a man who convinces her to have a sex change operation so they can be married and leave the country. The operation ends up botched, leaving Hedwig with only an “angry inch” of flesh. As she struggles to make her way in the United States, she constantly searches for her soulmate or “other half,” a concept she’s fascinated by based on a bedtime story her mother once told her (beautifully outlined in the song “The Origin of Love”). Also crucial to the plot is Hedwig and Yitzhak’s dysfunctional relationship. When they met, Yitzhak was a successful drag queen in Croatia, but Hedwig sees his natural talent as a threat to her desire for stardom and consequently belittles him at every turn.
There could not be less of a fourth wall in Hedwig—in fact, Criss’s Hedwig once joked about even breaking the fifth wall. The character addresses and interacts with the audience, and the structure of the piece allows for a good deal of improvisation, which was even more apparent after seeing two different performers in the role. I suspected this week may be an interesting time to see what can be a very self-aware, politically charged piece, and I was not wrong. Darren Criss made many references to the election, including early on when he called out latecomers being seated after the opening number. “Did they forget to set their clocks back? Well, Tuesday we set them back 60 years.” His Hedwig also admitted she has always considered herself a “nasty woman,” which drew a hearty cheer from the audience.
I previously saw the Broadway production in early 2015 with one of my favorite actors, Michael C. Hall, as Hedwig. When I initially heard of Criss’s casting, I was unsure how I felt about such a young Hedwig, but he impressed me at every turn. He seemed incredibly comfortable in the role, riffing with the audience and climbing over every square inch of the stage in massive high heels, all while in excellent voice. His Hedwig hides her flaws and insecurities behind a carefully constructed mask that does not crack until fairly late in the show, and his rapid-fire jokes kept the audience in the palm of his hand.
The following night, it was fascinating to see how a woman playing the role affected the feel of the show, as well as the audience response. Although it could have been the crowd, certain jokes did not seem to land as well, and Hall’s Hedwig stayed away from political commentary, although she did throw in a Harambe joke and a fantastic self-referential dig while picking on Yitzhak—”Lena Hall was better in the role. No Tony Award for you!” Likely as a result of her only playing the daunting role a handful of times thusfar, there was less riffing and less interaction with the audience. Overall, Hall’s Hedwig was much angrier, more bitter at the rough hand life has dealt her, which gave the moments leading up to Hedwig’s emotional unraveling and identity crisis a different kind of weight. Musically, many of the songs, my favorite “The Origin of Love” included, sounded lovely sung up the octave, but Hall’s pièce de résistance was most definitely her rendition of “Midnight Radio,” which may be the most impressive vocal performance I have ever seen in this show. It was fantastic to see two women owning the stage together, and the way Hall handled the traditionally scantily clad ending was a triumph for gender equality.
I often talk about the value I personally see in repeat visits to shows, and that is perhaps never better exemplified than with Hedwig. The show is so fluid (Hedwig would have a dozen punchlines to follow up that word choice) and so specific to the actor (or actress!) playing the role that I walked away feeling like I had two completely unique theater experiences. The show also felt exceptionally relevant given the current state of our country. Hedwig herself was born in a country divided, and made unthinkable sacrifices during her journey to find a place where she could be her true self. It’s a necessary reminder that it takes a lot to tear us down.
Hedwig runs at the Pantages through November 27th. To purchase tickets, which range from $35-$200, click here. Lena Hall will star as Hedwig on November 20th at 6:30pm and November 25th at 8pm. Darren Criss will star in all other performances. While this is the last stop of the tour for Criss and Hall, it will continue to other cities with Euan Morton as Hedwig and Hannah Comeau as Yitzhak into 2017.