One of the best things about live theatre is watching a beautiful story and a magnificent group of storytellers come together to make magic happen. That’s what I was lucky enough to witness this week during opening night of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater. Opening night also marked the triumphant return of Glee's Darren Criss as Hedwig and Lena Hall reprising her Tony-awarding role as Yitzhak. But the powerhouse that is Lena Hall will also be stepping into the role of Hedwig during a handful of performances. This will be the first time since the show’s inception that a woman will step into Hedwig’s heels. And after seeing Lena as Yitzhak, I can safely predict she’ll fit in those heels just fine.
Lena is a huge part of Hedwig and has been a constant presence over the years, as the men who played Hedwig came and went. Her four stage wives -- Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, John Cameron Mitchell and Michael C. Hall -- all placed their own mark on the part of Hedwig, and, now, it seems only fitting Lena steps into the iconic role herself.
The current touring production kicked off its San Francisco run this week and will remain in SF for four weeks. The show is a show within a show; we, the audience, are transported from a Broadway theatre to a random punk rock club where we are at a Hedwig & The Angry Inch (the band) gig. Hedwig, between and through the music, shares her story of growing up in East Berlin. A botched sex change operation for the soldier she then married took her from Hansel to Hedwig (leaving only an “angry inch” of skin). Hedwig and her soldier escaped East Berlin for Kansas, quickly followed by a divorce that left Hedwig alone in her trailer park watching the Berlin Wall come down (the sex change and marriage all for nothing). Hedwig, then, meets and falls in love with the teenage brother of a little boy she babysits for. Tommy Gnosis, as she dubs him, not only leaves Hedwig after finding out about her botched operation but takes her music with him, becoming a famous rock star and never crediting Hedwig for any of it.
Hedwig is now married to Yitzhak, a drag queen whose talent surpasses Hedwig’s, forcing her to only marry Yitzhak if he gives up performing in drag. Yitzhak remains begrudgingly loyal to Hedwig as a member of the band/road crew over the course of the show, despite Hedwig’s treatment of Yitzhak.
Technically? If I could geek out for just a moment ... the set instantly took us from a gorgeous classy Broadway theatre to the seediest dirtiest rock club you ever visited. And I visited many over the years -- I know what they feel like. The Angry Inch (Tits of Clay) kicked some serious ass and put on a rock show I would’ve been more than happy to go see at any of the rock clubs down the street. And Darren Criss was mesmerising as Hedwig, somehow capturing the anger and bitterness of the character yet always maintaining a sense of punk rock innocence and heartbreak.
Lena Hall ... well, Lena Hall was everything. She just might be the closest I’ll ever get to seeing Janis Joplin or Nina Simone live on stage. She dominated the stage, even when hidden in the shadows, and, when she reemerges in the end, she emerges as every person who has lived in the shadows of a bad relationship or of the life they truly want to live. We have all been there, and Yitzhak's solo in the end is for all of us.
The short version? Hedwig’s story, for all its gender bending and fluidity, is really all of our stories. Anyone who has ever been burned by love. Anyone who has never felt comfortable in their own skin. Anyone who has relied on the constant reliability of music to help them find their way. In the end, Hedwig’s story is about not only accepting and embracing who you are but accepting and embracing the people you love for who they are.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues its run at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre through October 30, then it makes its way to Los Angeles! I highly recommend seeing it when it comes to a stage near you, and prepare to be rocked.