The power of Hedwig

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In today's political landscape, America needs Hedwig.
Courtesy of DCPA/Joan Marcus

On Nov. 18, Vice-President elect Mike Pence went out on the town for a night of theater, choosing Broadway’s hottest ticket: Hamilton. After the show ended, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays America’s second VP, Aaron Burr, thanked Pence for coming and delivered a hopeful plea.

“We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” he said. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

If Pence had chosen Hedwig and the Angry Inch instead of Hamilton, Hedwig’s cast might have had a more direct message — a crotch grab and the middle finger.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch can be delicately described as a boundary-pushing, gender-bending ruckus packed with scorching rock numbers. It can also be less-delicately described as a hilariously poignant punch in the face.

The show, now playing at the Buell Theater through Dec. 11, is based off of the 1998 off-Broadway production of the same name, later released as a film in 2001. The most recent rendition of Hedwig headed to Broadway in 2014, winning four out of the eight Tony Awards it was nominated for, including best revival of a musical.

In reality though, Hedwig isn’t really a musical. It is a rock show lead by the underappreciated Hedwig Robinson and her band The Angry Inch. Throughout the show, Hedwig tells the audience the story of her life: Born Hansel Schmidt, she grew up as a boy in East Berlin. After marrying an American soldier and surviving a botched sex change operation, Hedwig ends up in America where her life continues with its fair share of highs and lows. She gets through those tribulations with her blonde wig, makeup, glitter and, most importantly, her biting wit.

Rock ‘n’ roll has graced the Broadway stage numerous times, from Hair to Rent to Spring Awakening and more, but Hedwig rocks like nothing else. Accompanied by a band on stage and a killer light show, Hedwig might as well play a concert venue instead of a theater. It explodes off the stage with overflowing, infectious energy. Theoretically, every theater show should feel as if it’s a one-night-only performance just for that crowd, but Hedwig achieves this effect with more gusto than the typical musical.

The show opens with Hedwig literally busting onto the stage, belting the dynamic “Tear Me Down,” soon followed by a breathtaking performance of “The Origin of Love,” and then one of the show’s most popular and punchy songs “Sugar Daddy.” It’s easy to think the musical has quickly exercised its biggest and best numbers, but somehow each song manages to top the former. That is the talent of Hedwig; she’s here to put on a show and it’s going to be one hell of a good time.

But even with its gravitas, the show is just as, if not more, powerful in its quiet moments. This duality is mirrored in the show’s two main characters Hedwig (Euon Morton) and her husband Yitzhak (Hannah Corneau), an ex-drag queen who’s relegated to the background as to not upstage his wife.

In a show this strong, it’s almost impossible to pick a standout performance, and there’s no need. The character of Hedwig is a master class in character development. She’s a dream role for any actor willing to surpass the limits of humor and tragedy, of strength and vulnerability. Morton plays her beautifully and delivers an impressive performance — how he can do that every night of the week without retiring from exhaustion is a mystery.

As multidimensional as Hedwig is, her counterpart Yitzhak is just as complex. Yet instead of demanding attention, Yitzhak’s desires are quieter. With a single look or head tilt, his stoic presence can easily outshine the glitz of his wife. Corneau is outstanding in the role, and any time Yitzhak is able to nab the spotlight, Corneau leaves the audience desperate for more. Together with Morton, the actors infuse the show with the high level of chutzpah needed to achieve its purpose.

Hedwig is an exploration in gender, sexuality, rock music and moral ambiguity. But underneath Hedwig’s makeup and wig, she shows us we’re all the same: Human beings craving love, no matter the labels society thrusts on us. It serves as an important reminder of the current American landscape.

As Hedwig waxes poetic, she and the audience both know it’s 2016. Throughout the show, she delivers some pointed advice for the next four years that is met with laughs undercut with knowing groans of the precarious future.

But she sums it up in the opening number, “Enemies and adversaries/They try and tear me down/You want me baby, I dare you/Try and tear me down.”

It serves as a threat to those who plot her demise, and in the audience is an army of disciples ready to fight with her. You hear that Mike Pence?