Playwright: Book by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. At: American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron. Phone: 773-409-4125; $35-$40. Runs through: May 17. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Here's a paradox: The American Theatre Company space is unrecognizable, but audience members at Hedwig and the Angry Inch may get a sense of déjà vu as Nick Garrison opens the show with the hard-rocking "Tear Me Down."
This is Garrison's seventh production of Hedwig. His previous outings in the title role include a 2001 Chicago stint that was a critical hit and, reportedly, a financial bomb. As a substitute for Yeast Nation ( originally slated as part of ATC's season ) , Hedwig is a baffling choice. Why bring back the same actor to re-do something that didn't do well the first time around?
Retread or no, Garrison is superb as Hedwig, that slip of an East German girly-boy who grows up to become an internationally ignored glamazon pop superstar. Drawing on such icons as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and the emcee in Cabaret, Garrison creates his own force-of-nature, one-of-a-kind Miss Midnight Checkout Queen. He's every inch Hedwig, razor-tongued raconteur, chanteuse, accidental transgendered MTF and broken-hearted survivor.
Director PJ Paparelli is also no stranger to John Cameron Mitchell's text and Stephen Trask's music and lyrics. Like much of the current season at ATC ( Speech and Debate, The People's Temple ) , Hedwig was produced at Juneau's Perserverance theatre while Paparelli was the Artistic Director there. And that speaks to the context that Hedwig is mired in. The production is fine, but glaringly highlights the fact that Paparelli continues to rely on recycling and to select shows that aren't exactly conducive to nurturing an ensemble.
When Speech and Debate opened a year ago, we wrote, "There's but a single adult character in the cast, one played by the sole ATC company member in the cast. As engaging as the piece is, one hopes it isn't a harbinger of the new direction Paparelli has promised for ATC."
Alas, it was a harbinger. As most people know by now, all but four of ATC's company members walked out several weeks ago, citing artistic and administrative differences with Paparelli. In the unlikely event they return for Hedwig, they might not recognize the space they literally built from the ground up. Not only has Paparelli lost three-quarters of his ensemble; he's altered the very look of their former theater. Instead of entering on Byron for Hedwig, Paparelli has the audience following signs down an alley to "The American Underground" ( a cheesy invocation of the Velvet Underground ) and entering through a side door. The interior is plastered with tattered rock posters and seats have been ripped up and replaced with mismatched, fraying sofas. Hedwig's band—dressed like drugstore Halloween-costume versions of Sid Vicious—lurks and scowls while warming up.
Hedwig's funny/tragic story unspools between gorgeously realized musical numbers. Born in East Germany, he escapes by undergoing a botched sex-change operation ( hence the angry inch ) and marrying an American G.I. Stranded in a Junction City Kansas trailer park after the G.I. leaves him, Hedwig's search for love and completion evokes the power of Greek myth ( Plato's Symposium, specifically ) , the entrepreneurial can-do spirit that defines the American Dream ( "I scraped by on odd jobs. Mostly the jobs they call blow." ) and trashy tabloid scandal.
Garrison is wickedly funny, bantering with the audience in the most politically incorrect terms imaginable, launching power ballads into the stratosphere and ultimately, stripping down to near nakedness and absolute vulnerability.
Not so successful is the very miscast Sadieh Rifai ( one of ATC's remaining ensemble members ) as Yitzhak, a former drag queen who gave up everything to tour with Hedwig. In her big solo ( "Gigolo" ) , Rifai struggles to stay on pitch while her anthemic finale in "Midnight Radio" is louder than it is tuneful. Even more problematic than the troubled vocals? She's not believable in a crucial, transformative scene that is supposed to showcase Yitzhak's extraordinary drag persona. Note to the costume designer: Drag queens in full performance regalia don't generally don shapeless black work shirts over their sequined minis.
If you missed Garrison's Hedwig in 2001, he's absolutely worth the price of a ticket. But as fine as he is, there's no denying the fact that the production is essentially a rerun.