Hedwig and the Angry Inch – John Cameron Mitchell/Stephen Trask

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – John Cameron Mitchell/Stephen Trask

Hedwig rocks! Totally! So totally, in fact, that if you’re not into stage smoke, strobe lights and amplified instruments, you’d better come prepared with a pocketful of Excedrin. But the people who will be drawn to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, raised on the ethos of rock concerts, should have no problem. Either way, it’s a rockin’ good show.

John Cameron Mitchell’s little tale of an innocent German lad whose sex change operation went awry has had an interesting journey from page to stage. Beginning off-Broadway, and starring author Mitchell in the high-energy title role, it received the Obie and Outer Critic’s Circle Awards in 1998. Inevitably, it was made into a film which garnered awards at festivals in Sundance, Seattle, Deauville, Berlin and both the San Francisco International and the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. Mitchell also was nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe in 2002.

Meanwhile, the stage production marched on, all the way to Edinburgh (where Kevin Cahoon, who stars in San Francisco, replaced Mitchell in the lead at the Fringe Festival), then Boston, Seattle, Austin, Cleveland, Minneapolis and LA Now, after lengthy negotiations, Hedwig finally has arrived in San Francisco – a city historically hospitable to gender-bending, drag queens and over-the-top costuming. It’s about time.

The venue is as seedy as the fictional rock club wherein the action is set, the old Victoria Theatre on 16th Street in the Mission. But not to be discouraged. The Victoria has its charms. You can buy popcorn and eat it in your seat. And that seat will recline slightly, in the manner of the best movie house furniture. Moreover, one lucky critic found parking on the street, half a block away.

And now, on with the show. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Hedwig, who enters in a costume that makes anything Cher might show up in look ordinary. Feathers, leather, just a touch of fur darlings and a huge blonde wig, a fashion statement approached only by some of the getups seen in the audience. And Cahoon looks sensational in it.

Actually, Cahoon is sensational, whether belting out one of composer Stephen Trask’s rock numbers, strutting his/her stuff across the stage in high-heeled boots, vamping the audience in the manner of a younger Dame Edna or telling the touching and tragic story of Hedwig’s life. And, although it is really a sad story, make no mistake, as told by Hedwig, this is a hugely funny show.

Seduced by an American GI in postwar Germany, young Hansel-about-to-become-Hedwig agrees to the sex change operation desired by his new lover as a wedding gift. The motivation is to escape an unloving mother and get to America, home of beloved rock ‘n’ roll which Hansel has heretofore been forced to listen to in the oven at Mama’s insistence. Problem is, the surgeon botches the job, leaving an inch of male sex organ where the female parts were supposed to have gone. Poor Hedwig. A year later she finds herself divorced and abandoned in a trailer park in Kansas.

But the music plays on and soon, Hedwig, who has decided to become a rock star, and her new young lover, are playing clubs across the state. It seems that Hedwig has some talent as a songwriter and her guy, re-christened Tommy Gnosis, really wows the girls as a performer. Hedwig, who has been searching for her “other half” since childhood, is in love and teaches Tommy everything she knows. But, when the young man discovers Hedwig’s “inch,” he leaves her, taking all her material with him.

Which brings us to the present. Tommy is an international rock star of some notoriety. Hedwig scrapes by, singing in seedy clubs with her band of misfits, an oddly-dressed crew with unpronounceable names, fronted by her latest husband, Yitzhak, a Bosnian Jewish refugee who is essentially mute when it comes to dialogue but can sing up a storm. Lisa M. Engelken, a San Francisco rocker who performs as lisa e., plays the role. The band of nebbishes (Perry James, Matthew Black, Matthew Sperry and Nick Fogler) is terrific, if loud. Jason Eagan directed and the rest of the story unfolds as the band plays on.

Part rock concert, part Rocky Horror and part Days of Our Lives – German Style, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has settled down in San Francisco for an open-ended run. Knowing San Francisco, that should last a long, long time.

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San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”