Glam-rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has a production history as tangled as the gender identity of its protagonist. Beginning as a series of performances in rock clubs before becoming an Off-Broadway show, a West End production, a film adaptation and finally a wildly successful Broadway “revival” a few years ago, a new production of “Hedwig” at Zach Theatre (playing through March 3) showcases the timeless nature of the show’s message and of its powerhouse lead role.
With a book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, “Hedwig” tells the story of the titular heroine, a genderqueer rock singer whose sex change operation was botched, leaving her with an “inch” of flesh between her legs and an ongoing search for identity, fulfillment and love. The show takes the form of a hybrid rock concert/cabaret performance by Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, accompanied by her husband and back-up singer, Yitzhak (who is a male character played by a female actress, to further complicate the play’s themes of queerness).
“Hedwig” was originally a vehicle for John Cameron Mitchell himself, drawing on the writer and actor’s own childhood, and as such, the majority of the show is designed for a tour-de-force lead performance. Zach’s production has just such a performance courtesy of Daniel Rowan, whose turn as Hedwig is simultaneously fueled by manic energy and deep-seated pain hidden right beneath the surface. It’s remarkable to see an actor find so much subtlety in such an outré character. Rowan’s journey through the twists and turns of Hedwig’s breakdown is as heartbreaking as it is ultimately life-affirming.
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Leslie McDonel, as Yitzhak, is similarly dynamic, as her looming presence and outsized longing for the spotlight help provide shape to the entire experience, even as Hedwig’s own narrative jumps about in time and falls off the rail. The Angry Inch band, called upon to play a role in the on-stage performance, brings an infectious energy to the stage, as well as a true rock-and-roll sound to the score.
Director Dave Steakley and musical director Allen Robertson deserve all due credit for helping the cast craft such dynamic performances. In addition, Steakley’s conceit for the show — that it is taking place on the set of Zach’s production of “Goodnight Moon,” designed by Stephanie Busing — is intensively inventive and creative. The show’s look truly evokes the shift from playfulness, as embodied by the set, to the more aggressive staging of a punk rock concert as the evening goes on, thanks in no small part to Michael McDonald’s costume design, Jason Amato’s lighting and Serret Jensen’s hair and makeup.
Where Steakley’s choices become more questionable, however, is in his decision to set the show in the present moment, complete with plenty of digs at the current presidential administration. Though absolutely in keeping with Hedwig’s personality and with the show’s theme of breaking down the false walls and barriers separating different aspects of humanity, these jokes do weaken the production. On a surface level, they completely unmoor the story from chronological reality, making for several moments of narrative confusion.
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More importantly, though, by beginning with an anti-Trump diatribe, “Hedwig” misses an opportunity to change hearts and minds. The show is powerful enough to convince skeptics of gender fluidity to question their essentialist beliefs. As one of the city’s most venerable theaters, Zach draws in wider audiences than just the stereotypical progressive Austinites. This production could potentially do a lot to open, and even change, some minds. By beginning with a salvo of rhetoric tied completely to our contemporary political moment, though, the production risks alienating those audience members from the outset, closing them off to the power of a performance that might otherwise prove deeply revelatory.
All of that said, despite this missed opportunity, Zach’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a rich, energetic, moving production with exquisite performances that will linger in audiences’ minds long after the final number. It is well worth seeing, if for no other reason than to watch Rowan provide one of the most amazing performances we’re likely to view on an Austin stage this year.