Before I get too into this review, please know I have not seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch before this. I first heard of it when it stopped at the Ordway in 2017, and since then the musical has held a place in my mind as being a whirling meteor of tumultuous emotions that demolishes traditional thoughts of gender and sexuality—its colossal big bang comes out as rock and roll catharsis. In Theater Latte Da’s version, which runs through May 5, it is this and it isn’t.
Hedwig is on the road with her backup band the Angry Inch, and they’ve plotted out a schedule that follows famous rockstar Tommy Gnosis across the country. Tonight, we’re the lucky audience members for her concert, and she promises this show will not only be her music but her story. (The silence within her monologues in the beginning might surprise you if you’re expecting a power chord.)
She grew up as Hansel, a little boy in East Berlin who idolized American radio greats and fell in love with Plato’s “Symposium,” which includes the idea that humans each have another half they must find to complete them. Her transformation to Hedwig is her true angry inch, botched sex change surgery that was a desperate attempt to find happiness in America. Yet here she is, playing in a suburban park (made up with just the amount of retro by scenic designer Michael Hoover) and making the headlines as the mysterious woman who got into a car crash while giving a blow job to Tommy Gnosis.
The titular character is played by Tyler Michaels King, whose reputation on the Twin Cities stage creates big expectations. The bar is raised higher when you think of Hedwig herself: As my editor put it, 99 percent of the show goes through her.
Michaels King executes the role with perfect pitch across every note and perfectly timed drum-kicks to her innuendos, to the point where Hedwig is untouchable. She stands as tall as an Amazon, high heels or not. If her larger-than-life facade cracks when she hears Tommy Gnosis’ recording or if her relationship with her husband, Yitzhak (Jay Owen Eisenberg), is scarred by jealousy and bitterness, so what? All of the best rock stars have a little crazy, a little drama.
Faithful to the natural rise and fall of a set list, Hedwig beckons to the audience during sentiment-heavy songs like “The Origin of Love” and its beautiful visuals or “Wicked Little Town,” and she gets the crowd singing with the as-close-as-it-gets to the feel good-song of the show, “Wig in a Box.” On louder songs, some of the words can get lost in the otherwise fantastic sound of the band, led by music director Jason Hansen on keys, so if you miss them, look them up. For someone who talks so much, Hedwig never wastes her lyrics. (You have John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask to thank for each of those traits, respectively.)
Although Hedwig tells us this is a reveal all performance, it is a performance, and there are few moments when Michaels King allows Hedwig to be caught unaware enough to surrender to her own story. When that happens—when Michaels King is both Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis—time seems to hold its breath. Line by line, Michaels King switches his voice, his body, his being without thought, showing us Plato’s “Symposium” in this living form—or at least as Hedwig wants it to be. In these moments, it’s not Hedwig hamming up her life for a crowd, throwing in dark humor to make the tragedies sparkle. It’s not reminiscing and trying to find the right phrasing. It’s Hedwig reliving her conversations and dreams, moments of love and rejection.
For as much as Hedwig and the Angry Inch wrestles with sexuality and gender, it’s not a musical about that. You can’t leave it with nicely bulleted points or even a current view of what being transgender means. Instead, it explores the idea of personhood. As the night goes on, we see Hedwig is broken inside, infected from scars left by her other half and a world that doesn’t know what to do with her. She knows this, too. What she needs to know is how to not only reconcile her brokenness but become a whole. Although we’re mere spectators to her story, as we witness hers, we are asked to reflect on the world we are creating.