Waiting in the queue in front of Walnut Street’s Forrest Theater last night, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to like the performance inside. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, after all, my favorite piece of modern musical theater. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s glam-tinged songs are energized and anthemic, while the story — about the misadventures of a transgender rocker from East Berlin trying to find her place in the world — is funny, heartbreaking, poignant and endlessly compelling.
But even adjusting my reaction for bias and predisposition, I walked away from opening night last night seriously bowled away. This show was capital-W wow seriously really good. The touring production of Hedwig‘s 2014 Broadway revival is only in town through Sunday, and here are five reasons you should find time in your schedule to see it.
1. Euan Morton is incredible in the title role. — The opening of “Tear Me Down” may be jarring for some; as a listener, I’m so used to the bold Marc Bolan-esque vocals we hear from Mitchell on Hedwig’s original cast recording and film soundtrack, or Neal Patrick Harris’ more mellifluous and poppy delivery on the Broadway revival recording. Morton is way more punk rock and aggressive than either of those Hedwigs, which caused an initial moment of cognitive dissonance. Once the first line of dialogue began at the song’s conclusion, though, any reservations I had were gone, and I was fully immersed in Hedwig’s world.
A veteran of rock theater, playing Boy George in the 2002 London production of Taboo, Morton wholly embodies Hedwig in his 90 minutes onstage. He’s snarky and humorous, wistfully romantic and adventurous, climbing the speaker towers and spitting on the front row, taunting the crowd to the point of pissing them off and still winning them back by the rousing finale of “Midnight Radio.” Yet there’s no sense of artifice here — you really get the sense that she and he are one and the same, especially impressive considering that there are very few moments where Hedwig isn’t speaking or singing. Dang, that’s a lot to of lines to remember!
2. The Philly references are off the hook. — The script for Hedwig leaves much room for improvisation and customization, space for the cast to tailor their lines to the local venue or even a specific audience while still hitting the story’s major plot points and reaching the same conclusion. Morton clearly spent more than a minute on Google before showtime to build out this portion of the show; listen for nods to Fishtown gentrification, dog walks in Penn Treaty Park and more.
3. Rock concert sound in a small historic theater on Walnut Street. — My last time at the Forrest was forever ago, 1990-something for a touring production of The Who’s Tommy. While advances in music theater production technology have certainly occurred in the past couple decades, I remember feeling like that show didn’t sound like a rock show, definitely leaning more toned down and subdued.
Hedwig, by comparison, is amped up and in-your-face, taking full advantage of those aforementioned towers of speakers to reach their volume potential. You’ll seriously want to stand up and slam dance, or at least bop around a bit, and you’ll have to check yourself to remember that you’re in a more semi-formal setting — even when the strobes get super intense, as they do in the maximal rage of “Esquisite Corpse.”
4. Interactive antics abound. — Depending on where your seat is, you might find yourself becoming part of the show. Morton massively gets into the role, as I said, conversing with various people he’s able to lock eyes with and in some cases crossing the invisible stage-audience barrier. During “Sugar Daddy,” a bump-and-grind lapdance was performed on one man in the front row, while Morton aggressively French kissed another man in the center aisle. Person number one seemed unfazed; person number two seemed amused by it all, as did his significant other — and while some of the more trad theatergoers shifted in their seats uneasily, most of the crowd seemed game for Hedwig’s antics.
5. It’s only here for a week! — Like, is this an unusually short run for a touring theatrical show? I don’t get to nearly enough theater, obviously, but it seems criminal that the limited engagement is this super limited. Don’t miss the boat, people, Hedwig shoves off to another city after Sunday, and tickets and more information can be found at KimmelCenter.org. Below, a flashback to the Broadway cast and Neil Patrick Harris doing “Sugar Daddy” at the Tony Awards in 2014.
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