By Lori Bosworth
Hart House Theatre’s 2017/2018 season opened with a bang last night with the premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The rock musical showcases themes of gender roles, betrayal and self-acceptance with a songbook that is influenced by the likes of David Bowie, Metallica and Kurt Cobain.
Based on the book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the musical focuses on genderqueer Hedwig Robinson, who was previously Hansel in communist East Berlin. Abandoned by his U.S. army soldier-father and isolated by his distant mother, Hansel develops a lot for Western music. He becomes influenced by a story called “The Origin of Love,” and believes there is a person who is his other half. Hansel meets Luther, another U.S. soldier and decides to have a sex change operation so that the couple can marry and return to the U.S.
The setting of the musical is a punk rock club where Hedwig and his band, The Angry Inch, perform their set list, interspersed with Hedwig’s monologue about the details of his life. Hedwig’s former lover, Tommy Gnosis, has become much more successful and is playing venues much larger than *wink wink* Hart House Theatre. The play’s witty dialogue has been tailored to Toronto so we learn that Gnosis is in fact performing at the Rogers Centre that evening. Hedwig frequently opens the stage door to let us hear Gnosis performing and the accompanying applause – this is an effective sound effect by designer Jeremy Hutton. Shannon Lea Doyle’s clever set also allows Hedwig to hide behind haze on stage in order to change into Kathleen Black’s wonderful punk-rock costumes. Maybe it’s my less than perfect eyesight, but I found the lighting was a bit blinding at times.
Lauren Mayer has a small part as Hedwig’s husband, Yitzhak, but gets to display her outstanding voice in “The Long Grift” and in snippets from other popular 80s songs including Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Giustin MacLean, who plays keyboard as Skszp, directs a stellar back-up band, performing a range of tunes from grunge to heavy metal and even country.
James King as Hedwig is dynamite. King completely metamorphosizes into Hedwig – he nails the East Berlin accent, the sexy strut and the playful admonishments to the audience – “Take a thought shower,” he tells us! Nevermind a pin, you could hear a hair slide down your arm when King as Hedwig shared intimate whisperings that revealed some of the painful moments of his life. King’s vocals on “Wicked Little Town” were particulary memorable, displaying a sensitivity to the lyrics.
Rebecca Ballarin’s direction is sharp and shrewd in this one-act musical (with no intermission). There is no excess dialogue and the pace of the musical moves briskly to its conclusion.
This is one of the best productions I’ve seen at Hart House Theatre. You’re not going to want to miss this one!
Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, 416-978-8849, from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7, 2017.
Tickets are Adults $28, Seniors $17, Students $15. Students are $12 every Wednesday evening. Purchase tickets at the Hart House Theatre Box Office or online. Running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.