Not since the debut of Boy George during the heyday of MTV has gender-bending been as curious or colorful as it is in the musical “Hedwig And The Angry Inch.” First staged Off-Broadway in the late 1990s, followed by a movie in 2011 and another run on the Great White Way in 2014 (starring Neil Patrick Harris), the four-time Tony Award winner (including “Best Musical Revival”) has since taken to the road, landing at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through March 19.
“Hedwig And The Angry Inch” unquestionably stands in a category that’s entirely its own, and while its adult themes and language (plus sea of blinding strobe lights) won’t appeal to everybody, it empathically relates to anyone who’s ever experienced rejection for feeling like an outsider, while perhaps coaxing out the inner rocker in everyone who crosses paths with its glitter and guitars.
In keeping with the show’s regular pattern of breaking the fourth wall, rock star Hedwig (played by the attention-grabbing Euan Morton, who’s coincidently known for originating the role of that very Culture Club singer in “Taboo”) frequently addresses the Windy City, casually tossing around places such as Solider Field and Wicker Park. But rather than unfolding like a standard play, the plot is fueled by the flamboyant lead singer’s dark humor and emotionally weighty conversations in between original glam rock songs inspired by David Bowie, Queen, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
Fans of all those classic acts are sure to fall in love with the four-piece band’s forceful sound, which alongside Green Day’s “American Idiot,” may be the hardest hitting material to ever hit Broadway. The only other loose comparison that could be made in terms of general premise is the iconic “Cabaret,” though “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” most definitely (and defiantly) turns the dial of non-traditional gender roles well past 11.
While a plea for understanding and inclusion are major components of the performance, it also revolves around Hedwig’s tireless pursuit of finding life’s ultimate soulmate, even if it means being forced into a botched sex change operation so he can marry a man (who later runs away with another man) just prior to the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Although the genderqueer, glory-seeking hopeful rebounds with a new husband named Yitzhak (a frequently belittled sidekick played bravely by Hannah Corneau), most of his anguish actually comes from being rejected for his ambiguous anatomy in an intermediary relationship with fellow artist Tommy Gnosis, who rises to significant fame off the songs Hedwig wrote, yet never shares the credit.
For much of the musical, it appears Hedwig is repeating that very same pattern with Yitzhak, though the stadium-shaking finale “Midnight Radio” results in a surprising change of heart (and wig) as it commands everyone to “lift up your hands.” Between it all, “Hedwig And The Angry Inch” unquestionably stands in a category that’s entirely its own, and while its adult themes and language (plus sea of blinding strobe lights) won’t appeal to everybody, the extravaganza empathically relates to anyone who’s ever experienced rejection for feeling like an outsider, while perhaps coaxing out the inner rocker in everyone who crosses paths with its glitter and guitars.