The rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch developed in drag punk clubs, not a theater setting, which explains a lot. For starters, the musically and visually stunning production about a fictional band with a genderqueer singer from East Germany has rock concert energy to spare, but doesn’t translate to a giant venue like the “so modern” San Diego Civic Theatre.
For the stage concept, we watch rock star Hedwig’s musical act as she stalks another performer, a former lover who stole her songs. Euan Mortan as Hedwig stomps around in glittery denim mini shorts and flicks assorted wigs. She tells her tragic story about growing up in Berlin, abandonment, meeting an American soldier, and the botched sex change surgery resulting in the angry inch, which is also the name of her kick ass band on stage.
Too bad we’re a football field away. We can’t discern most of the words in the 11 songs that help us understand Hedwig’s identity because the sound mix blows out our eardrums.
It’s annoying to have energized word-jammed songs in the glam rock genre distorted. David Bowie wouldn’t stand for it.
Music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask. John Cameron Mitchell wrote the book. They workshopped the show for more than a decade before getting it to Broadway, and they won several Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical. It must have been a howling good show back in a smaller, club venue with characters singing and strutting a few feet a way.
If you go to the Civic show, bone up on the story ahead of time, and consider bringing ear plugs. On opening night, a woman next to me sat with her hands cupped over her ears. A man stuffed paper into his ears. There is no intermission, so don’t plan on leaving early.
Hedwig is a metaphor. Call it a rock and roll comedy that challenges ideas about love and gender fluid people, and individuality. Mitchell has said “Hedwig is not a trans woman, but a gender queer character” and views her as a gender of one, which is accidentally beautiful.
In between the stories about moving to Kansas and living with a guy name Luther, and blue drag queen humor, Hedwig and the band perform pounding songs with help, from her back-up singer and husband, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen from Zagrev.
Hedwig is threatened by his talent, and won’t allow him to do drag. Blurring gender lines, he’s played by the gorgeous female actress, Hannah Corneau, who has a voice that explodes and steals the show in the end. She makes an unforgettable and spine tingling transformation in the final song “Midnight Radio,” which is worth the cost of admission and preceding sonic suffering.
The story is loosely inspired by Mitchell’s life as the son of a U.S. Army General in U.S. occupied Berlin, and his babysitter who moonlighted as a prostitute in a Kansas trailer park.
The show has a cult following. There’s a Hedwig film. Rabid fans known as Hedheads know the story and songs by heart, so they don’t care about the muddy sound, but new audiences will suffer in this production.
Back in row J, we try to follow Hedwig’s story about a muffin and a wig. No, that can’t be right. Turns out the original wig was made out of toilet paper rolls. A wall of wigs dances on the stage. Some will remember the bizarre wig shop in the Gaslamp Quarter, before gentrification. But in the opening song “Tear Me Down” we strain to hear the words, and it’s so stinking loud we can’t hear them.
There is a clever little subplot. Hedwig says she got the empty stage because the stage show “Hurt Locker” closed. Faux programs tossed on the floor help make that real.
With his muscled legs and golden platform boots, Mortan is a crude and clumsy Hedwig. He screams at people in the front row and struggles to balance on top of a wrecked car, and it’s all done on purpose.
Following tradition, somebody did research about San Diego to make it more of a show within a show. He is quick to make jokes about El Cajon Blvd, Qualcomm, and the Civic Theatre. His timing is sharp and drag queen humor is wickedly funny.
The booming Angry Inch band, combined with projections, and blinding lights, make Hedwig feel like a blast from the 1970s.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Sunday, Dec. 4 at the Civic Theatre. www.broadwaysd.com