An unforgettable ‘Hedwig’ at the Shubert
Like all divas, Hedwig insists upon our complete attention and our unalloyed affection.
And gets it, compelling the former through sheer force of personality while earning the latter by remaining strangely lovable despite an extensive catalog of seemingly disqualifying character faults that include overweening narcissism, a tendency toward whiplash-inducing mood shifts, and general imperiousness.
A transgender glam-rocker from the former East Germany, Hedwig is incarnated with verve and ferocity by Euan Morton in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ a freewheeling musical — part concert, part confessional monologue, part chronicle of a divided self — that has taken over the Shubert Theatre through June 11. The old joint may never be the same.
Yet for all the raucous energy driving this touring production of “Hedwig,’’ director Michael Mayer (“American Idiot,’’ “Spring Awakening’’) also allows for crucial moments of stillness and reflection that open a window onto Hedwig’s psyche. Morton’s Hedwig is an introspective, heart-sore figure whose wounds run deeper than the botched sex-change operation that left the character with that “angry inch.’’ Utterly distinctive though the character is in all other respects, Hedwig’s quest for love, peace of mind, identity, and a secure place in the world has a universal quality.
“It is clear that I must find my other half,’’ says Hedwig. “But is it a he or a she?’’
Morton is following in the gold high-heeled footsteps of many others, including Neil Patrick Harris (who won a Tony for his paint-melting portrayal of Hedwig in the 2014 Broadway revival) and John Cameron Mitchell, who originated the role and wrote the book for the musical. The superb score, alternately hard-rocking (“Tear Me Down,’’ “Angry Inch’’) and wistfully balladic (“Wicked Little Town’’), is by Stephen Trask.
The running joke of “Hedwig’’ is that Hedwig is performing on the set of a disastrous, quickly shuttered tuner titled “Hurt Locker: The Musical.’’ At center stage of the Shubert sits an old, battered car, atop which Morton periodically clambers to sing. Hedwig is flanked by an (excellent) backup band, called The Angry Inch; certain songs are punctuated by animated images projected onto a retractable scrim.
Hedwig’s forlorn husband, Yitzhak, played by the gorgeous-voiced Hannah Corneau, serves both as a dumped-upon foil and emotional counterpoint. When Hedwig’s abuse crosses the line, Yitzhak fights back by throwing open a door to let in the sound of a concert being performed nearby by Tommy Gnosis, the onetime love of Hedwig’s life, whose egocentricity and self-absorption are a match for Hedwig’s.
The script of “Hedwig’’ has been updated (there’s a nifty Melania Trump joke) and localized in spots, with throwaway references to Southie, the Seaport District, and Legal Harborside, and a naughtily suggestive bit involving Boch Center president and CEO Josiah A. Spaulding Jr. The show’s grasp of Boston geography proves wobbly at one point, when Hedwig alludes to Tommy’s concert as taking place “just across the street at the TD Garden.’’ Morton’s Hedwig engages, and sometimes jocularly confronts, the audience, demanding of one late-arriving spectator: “Why did you think this was a good time to go to the toilet? Did you wash your hands?’’
What’s most striking about “Hedwig,’’ though, is not its flexible structure but rather how much the show’s fundamental DNA remains not just intact but vital two decades after its inception — two decades during which the boundaries of gender identity grew more fluid. Self-described as “some slip of a girlyboy from communist East Berlin’’ turned “internationally ignored song stylist,’’ Hedwig remains a wholly singular creation.
Born to an American GI father and a deeply eccentric East German mother with whom he lives until he’s in his mid-20s, Hedwig meets and marries a US Army sergeant. The sergeant insists on that fateful sex-change operation before he will take Hedwig to the States. Once there, it’s not long before the marriage founders, but Hedwig, ever the survivor, launches on a career as a singer-songwriter. After falling hard for a dim-bulb teenager, later to be called Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig mentors him and incorporates him into his act, only to ultimately be abandoned by him as Tommy ascends to heights of arena-filling stardom Hedwig can only dream of.
But Hedwig has the final word. When you’re as unforgettable as Hedwig is, you deserve it.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
Book by John Cameron Mitchell. Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Michael Mayer. Presented by the Boch Center at the Shubert Theatre, Boston, through June 11. Tickets start at $35, 866-348-9738, www.bochcenter.org