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REVIEW: In-Your Face Hedwig Grabs and Doesn’t Let Go (Theater Latté Da)

Tyler Michaels stars in Theater Latté Da’s production of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now playing at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Photo by Dan Norman.

Reception theory emphasizes the importance of individual and collective reactions in determining something’s meaning. An author may write with one intention, only to find that their audience comes away with another. This is very much the case with the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, now playing at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.

Hedwig premiered Off-Broadway in 1998, which makes it a 21-year-old spring chicken. The America that greeted it was in some ways very different than today’s – Bill Clinton had signed the infamous Defense of Marriage Act just two years earlier, and discussions of transgender rights were largely obscured by the larger public dialogue about so-called “gay marriage” and civil unions. Book writer (and the original star of Hedwig) John Cameron Mitchell has stated that he would write a very different show if he were trying to write Hedwig today.

In other ways, however, America hasn’t changed that much. Many “alternate” sexualities continue to be stigmatized, and debates over transgender access to bathrooms and other public spaces and activities continue to intrude in legal and extralegal forms. And so Hedwig, a story of a gay man who underwent a sex change operation to escape East Germany, has become an anthem of sorts to those who feel that their identity is excluded or discriminated against. How exactly the character of Hedwig identifies and what she (as the script specifies) would call herself in today’s lingo is an exercise left to the imagination. The back story is theatrically complicated, but not so different from many of the legal and other fictions used historically to bypass discriminatory marriage laws.

Michael Hoover’s set places Hedwig (Tyler Michaels) in the thick of the audience for much of the shot. Photo by Dan Norman.

That is all backstory. How, you might ask, does this show look and sound? In two words: pretty loud. Michael Hoover’s set situates the action not in the set of a badly-planned Broadway musical (as was the case with the Neil Patrick Harris Broadway run of Hedwig and the tour that visited the Ordway in 2017), but back in its original digs (so to speak) in a parking lot, underneath a pair of billboards. Hedwig’s travel trailer sits despondently off to one side, while the stage-on-the-stage has just the right balance in its looks between grungy and dangerous. The band that occupies it – Jendeen Forberg, Jason Hansen, Mayda Miller, and Jakob Smith, led by music director Jason Hansen – is proud, loud, and musically on point. You will definitely want to grab the free earplugs on the way in; if you’re at all sensitive to rock concert volume levels, you might even consider bringing your own, more substantial hearing protection.

Hedwig is in its nature an intimate show, in this case enhanced by a ramp that allows Hedwig (Tyler Michaels) to strut out amidst the audience to deliver candy and entendres. Directors Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein seem to have honed in on the idea of radical intimacy, which is never better than when Michaels is writhing on the stage floor, deep in the throes of a song. Hedwig’s breakdowns and vulnerability are that much more powerful when they’re up close. The many transformations of “Wig in the Box” are also a poignant reminder of the power of seemingly small acts of self-care – and the dangers of how we let our perceptions be shaded by small visual details.

“Complicated” is probably the best way to describe the relationship between Hedwig (Tyler Michaels) and her husband Yitzhak (Jay Owen Eisenberg)…which is arguably one of the show’s simpler elements. Photo by Dan Norman.

As written, Hedwig features just two characters who appear onstage besides the band: Hedwig and Yitzhak (Jay Owen Eisenberg), whose extremely complicated relationship mostly tosses the passive in passive-aggressive out the door. Michaels shines as Hedwig throughout the show, whether dolling up or stripping down, or anything in-between. Eisenberg is no slouch; when Yitzhak’s vocals are finally allowed out of the wig box and into the spotlight (it’s a plot thing), Eisenberg grabs the vocal spotlight.

How Hedwig will stand the test of time is anyone’s guess, but the opening audience didn’t seem to have any compunctions about the show’s open questions or more dated components. And “The Story of Love”, one of the make-or-break songs in the show, is simply electric. Look for the projections designed by Kathy Maxwell and executed by Noah Lawrence-Holder.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays through May 5 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine