ReTheater bursts onto the Philadelphia scene with a smash, the 20th-anniversary production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and The Angry Inch. In the title role, drag performer Braden Chapman delivers a performance worthy of a rock star, at once weepy and melodramatic and infused with the fury and angst of long-endured sorrow.
Chapman has recently faced allegations of sexual harassment. In May, Philadelphia magazine published statements by two male drag artists that Chapman had engaged in unwanted sexual conversation with them on Facebook Messenger, and that they had felt pressured to participate because of his position of power in the drag and gay communities in Philadelphia. They also alleged that others had had similar encounters, allegations not yet corroborated. Chapman then published an apology, stating that "I have made great mistakes that I am truly sorry for and humbled by."
In the present production, at least, Chapman dodges mockingly inside Hedwig's backstory. Mitchell's book begins with the "internationally ignored" performer (Hedwig) thrust into the limelight because of her involvement in a car crash with a famous rock star (when his limo plows into a school bus filled with deaf children). "The only survivor is now blind," Hedwig jokes in the opening moments.
Chapman peppers the show with dozens of similar jokes and moments, many ad-libbed; after a vigorous song-and-dance number, Hedwig dryly mutters, "The last time I moved like that, a Southwest plane fell out of the sky." Other jokes knock our current obsessions, and Hedwig enters wearing a foot-high blond wig that layers in curls over a boxer's robe emblazoned with a De Niro-esque curse of President Trump and a golden swastika across the back.
Mitchell's book and Trask's lyrics blend long, fourth-wall-shattering monologues with a short set list of 11 songs. As the story goes, in 1988 a teenage Hansel escaped from East Berlin (and a coldhearted mother) by marrying an American serviceman from the Midwest. To gain freedom, Hansel had to "leave something behind," and a botched sex change operation led to the name and the "angry inch" in the musical's title. Years later in America as a small-town drag performer, Hedwig discovers and mentors a prodigious guitar talent (the unseen rock star of the limousine story), mistaking him for a true love before he runs off to find success with the best of the songs they wrote together.
A phenomenal five-piece band backs Chapman and Stephanie C. Kernisan, who plays Yitzhak, a former drag star from Yugoslavia who later marries Hedwig. Kernisan's voice adds some gorgeous moments to the mostly heavy-metal score. The music has concert-level power, but in the Ruba Club's intimate confines, it renders many of Chapman's vocals inaudible. Alyssandra Docherty's lighting adds to the concert feel, and Bobby Goodrich's costumes and wigs blend high hair and smooth fabrics into a drag pageant.
For just over 100 minutes, Hedwig's tale captivates with a story of personal identity, love, and longing against a backdrop of political and social tyranny. It's a first production that heralds a bright future at reTheater.