It starts with a small smile.
Then comes a grin and a laugh and then you cringe and then you get serious for a moment, a lump in your throat, maybe even a tear in your eye.
Then you do it all over again and again and again.
And over all of that, over every bit of those emotions, is the question.
Is she a he or is he a she.
And the answer, finally dawning is “YES.”
It is “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the wonderfully bizarre musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, a show that has been both off and on Broadway and in hundreds of smaller theaters around the world.
It is now in Milwaukee, produced by the rabble rousers at All In Productions and being staged at Next Act Theatre, one of the best spaces in the city.
AIP was born four years ago with “The Last Five Years,” one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. It was staged in the same spot. Since then their production history has had its ups and downs, expected from a baby.
Well, with Hedwig, the baby has grown up. Under the creative and rambunctious direction of Robby McGhee, Hedwig is a night that is everything great theater ought to be.
With Brett Sweeney delivering a performance as good as any I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee, this show soars on wings draped in black leather, gilded dress, full length gown and a series of wigs that change a look and a personality.
This Hedwig and her band (The Angry Inch) is a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Cher, The Muffs, Sid Vicious, David Bowie and is a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Cher, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Patti Smith and not coincidentally, The Ramones.
“Hedwig” is a story of conflict and is immensely striking in America today with the two battling sides of our national psyche.
It’s about the wall in Berlin that ended a war and divided a country, and a wall inside Hedwig that started a war and split a personality. Hedig is a nightclub singer with a show that is part spoken word, part music and all riveting. It’s the story of her life, from a child in East Germany, through love and loss, crucifixion and resurrection, and joy and sorrow.
It’s difficult to adequately explain just how commanding this production is.
Hedwig’s journey to get to the point where she is an internationally ignored singer, fresh off a breakup and stuck in a third-rate tour with her assistant, Yitzhak, (Lydia Rose Eiche), is a tortuous one.
Mr. McGhee has given free reign to the actors and musicians, who are costumed (Lyn Kream) as a vivid paen to every punk band to ever hit the stage. Paula Foley Tillen, who directed the music for the show, is specially striking with a head of red curly hair crowning a leather vest as she pounds her keyboards.
Mr. Mcghee has put together a great little band, two guitars, bass, keyboards and frantic drummer to be the backup stars to the big star. They capture the wild abandon of every punk band and have the ability and skills to wring the tenderness out of songs like “The Origin of Love” and “Hedwig’s Lament.”
Ms. Eiche is a marvelous talent with a voice that can capture both Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton in the same evening. She’s a good actor and stands out in both her solo and harmony work with Hedwig.
It is Mr. Sweeney who carries this show on his shoulders.
From the first moments, draped in a long curly blonde wig (designed by Kathy Smith), this is a girl with boundless sex appeal.
Like the neighborhood hooker with a heart, this girl is traveling suitcase full of contradictions.
She’s brash and brazen but saddled with uncertainty and self-doubt. Mr. Sweeney is spectacular.
He’s got a lot of girl in him and a lot of wannabe stardom. He moves like a graceful man moving like a graceful woman and clearly embraces the concept of communication by body language.
His tremulous tenor strikes to the heart and carries us along this incredible journey. To say that this actor owns his character is a severe understatement. He takes Hedwig, holds her in his arms, pats her forehead to try and keep her calm and lets loose when the world gets to be too much.
This is a production that won’t run forever – too bad – but it is the highlight of the early season in Milwaukee. Don’t miss it. I mean, DON’T MISS IT!
Production Credits: Director, Robby McGhee; Music Director, Paula Foley Tillen; Choreographer, AJ Pawelski; Costume Designer, Lyn Kream; Lighting Designer, Mike Van Dreser; Sound Designer, Derek Buckles; Set Designer, Chris Budish; Wigs, Kathy Smith; Stage Manager, Allison Kaprovich; Deck Chief, Jessica Betts; Makeup Consultant, Ben Ludwig; Graphic Designer, Chad Forrest; Production Manager, Alex Scheurell; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.