HEDWIG is a Cult Hit
Los Angeles Daily News, November 5, 1999
by Reed Johnson

What's a nice "girly-boy" like Hedwig Schmidt doing at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard? Why, where else but on the street of broken dreams would you expect to find a hard-luck East German transsexual rock singer, desperately seeking adoring fans, a punk backbeat and his/her Platonic alter ego?  

Mind you, Hedwig isn't the type to cry over spilled Coors. Oh, at first glance, she looks fetching, even vulnerable, in those Farrah Fawcett tresses, cowgirl boots and pink tassled outfit that she wears in her angst-ridden rock 'n' roll confessional, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

But beneath Hedwig's campy, cross-dressing exterior lies the soul of a true rock 'n' roll survivor. This, after all, is a guy (gal?) who overcame a bungled sex-change operation that left her (him?) with the unfortunate appendage that gives the show, and Hedwig's rip-roaring backup band, its name.

Even David Bowie, king of pop chameleons, couldn't match the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes that Hedwig has gone through en route to self-realization, as she tells us in teary but resilient German-inflected English.

If you're wondering why you've never heard of this Teutonic trouper, don't worry. Her impeccable rock pedigree aside, Hedwig (nee Hansel) is really the artful confabulation of composer Stephen Trask and actor-writer John Cameron Mitchell, who won multiple awards for originating the title role in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch's" New York debut.

Since opening last winter, the pun-happy show has become a boundary-blurring cult hit, attracting everyone from downtown hipsters to middle-age Jersey suburbanites and celebrities such as the aforementioned Mr. Bowie, one of its producers. Fittingly, given its fixation on true and assumed identities, "Hedwig" arrived in L.A. on Halloween, attended by a dressed-to-kill opening-night crowd.

Does the show live up to its buzz? Not quite. Despite its cunningly executed two-part harmony of parody and pathos, and an expert, often painfully funny lead performance by Michael Cerveris, "Hedwig" is a modest concept pumped up by big expectations.

Even with some ingenious nips and tucks, much of "Hedwig's" material bears a too-strong family resemblance to "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and the pop-culture spoof/homages of female impersonators such as Charles Busch and the late Charles Ludlam.

Likewise, its glam heroine seems less an exciting new addition to musical theater than a clever fusion of exotic predecessors, real and invented -- from Marlene Dietrich and Adam Ant to "Rocky Horror's" Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Belle Poitrine of Patrick Dennis' "Little Me."

While Trask's score contains at least a pair of haunting tunes and rocks a lot harder than "Rent," it's too lyrically brittle to make you want to fling yourself into the nearest mosh pit. Mitchell's script also tends to belabor its points as the night goes on.

None of that, however, detracts from Cerveris, who first caught Broadway's attention three years ago as the star of "The Who's Tommy." Here, he adroitly reinvents himself before our eyes while relating the story of Hedwig's progression from East German sex-abuse victim to reluctant Cold War "bride" to Kansas trailer trash and rejected star-maker/lover of a selfish pop glamour boy named Tommy Gnosis.

Perfectly cast, Cerveris grasps at a gut level the messianic/self-immolating gestalt of rock 'n' roll, its abiding -- though now almost quaint -- belief that an electric guitar can be a force for personal and political transformation. In Hedwig's final incarnation, as a kind of luminous, hairless Caliban, Cerveris finds a harrowingly beautiful inner voice, and makes this wayward show his own.

What: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Where: Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
When: Indefinite run. Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 and 11 p.m. Fridays, 5 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $30 and $55; a limited number of $20 tickets will be available for each show on the day of performance, one hour prior to curtain, at the theater box office. Call (310) 859-2830.

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