Hedwig and the Angry Inch is one of those special works that earmark a chapter of my life. During my high school senior year and early college days, I watched the 2001 movie and listened to the soundtrack countless times, often singing the songs with friends in the wee hours of the night.
I found a lot to love about the punk rock opera, the story of finding oneself, the impeccable songcrafting, the unorthodox storytelling — too much to list, really.
So walking into Oregon Contemporary Theatre, I felt nervous about the production and whether it could hold up to the pedestal in my mind. But the minute the lights went out and Hedwig Schmidt (Adam Goldthwaite) strolled in wearing the signature cape with the writing “Yankee Go Home With Me,” I could feel a perfect show was on its way. And that gut feeling wasn’t wrong. OCT’s production was an all-out production that didn’t miss a beat.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a punk rock opera set in a world that transforms OCT’s theater into a dingy yet intimate rock venue. Schmidt and her band are performing on a stage in Eugene, playing punk rock, and in between songs she tells the audience her life story, how she grew up in East Berlin during Soviet rule, undergoing forced gender reassignment to escape with an American solider and being betrayed by her ex-lover and musical collaborator Tommy Gnosis.
The punk rock musical had its start in the mid-’90s in weekly gatherings called Squeezebox at the New York nightclub Don Hill’s, where drag queens fronted punk rock bands. Hedwig and the Angry Inch then evolved into an off-Broadway production in the late-’90s, into an independent film in 2001, and then to Broadway.
Goldthwaite captures the essence of the frontwoman, effortlessly switching between Schmidt’s Eastern European accent, the Midwestern teenager accent of Gnosis, the Black American soldier who took her to the U.S. — and more.
Goldthwaite also masterfully handles the comic and tragic sides of Schmidt. Whether it’s Schmidt’s opening (“I always like a warm hand at my entry”) or her response to when she met Gnosis, who only listened to bands such as Asia, Europe and Kansas (“travel exhausts me, honey”), Goldthwaite hits the punchlines. And he portrays Schmidt’s tragic side, the trauma of fleeing East Berlin only to see the wall fall a few years later, that helps drive the bullying of backup vocalist Yitzhak.
And there isn’t Schmidt without Yitzhak (T.A. Nichols), who suffers under the iron fist of a tyrannical frontwoman. As Yitzhak, Nichols excellently supports Goldthwaite’s Schmidt, both musically and during storytelling. It’s a testament to her talent that she can casually sing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” as Goldthwaite’s Schmidt recalls a love encounter with Gnosis.
Of course, there’s the music. Written by Stephen Trask, the soundtrack has the feel of David Bowie’s concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, both musically and thematically. Similar to Bowie’s classic album, the musical numbers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch capture isolation, pain, sorrow, angst and triumph — with an extra dose of humor in “Sugar Daddy.” And the live band behind Schmidt and Itzhak maintained the balance of raw energy and subtlety for such a song list.
My only wish for this production comes from someone so familiar with the music. I want to forget about theater etiquette, get out of my seat and sing along, as if the show is really happening in a rock venue. It’s tough watching the performance while being contained in a chair without wanting to sing every line with Goldthwaite — but luckily us Hedwig fanatics get a chance to sing along for a chorus in “Wig in a Box.”
Until OCT has a sing-along version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, this is as perfect as the punk rock musical will get.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through Sunday, Nov. 6, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway. Ticket info at OCTheatre.org.