|Mason Alexander Park stars as Hedwig
The Olney Theatre Center’s
presentation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
showcases all the elements of solid musical theatre and does so with
jaw-dropping magnificence. The glam rock musical, a winner of four Tony Awards
in 2016 with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask and a book by John Cameron
Mitchell whose own lived experiences inspired much of the story, is a display
of a wide spectrum of emotions, high energy, great songs and exceptional talent.
The show is a rock concert, comedy, drag show, confessional and revival all
rolled into one. The music was influenced by the likes of Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols and David Bowie.
A riveting tragicomic story line
brought to life by the outstanding score and a tour de force performance by
standout Mason Alexander Park, a non-binary actor and a Helen Hayes Award winner
from the role they played as the Emcee in Olney’s production of Cabaret in 2019, Hedwig delivers big time. This should be no surprise as Director
Johanna Mckeon had helmed the national touring production of Hedwig and Park had also played the role
on tour. Experience counts.
We learn through monologues and
songs the central character was born male, Hansel Schmidt, in Communist East
Berlin. As a condition for marrying his GI boyfriend to ultimately flee the
Iron Curtain, Hansel undergoes gender reassignment surgery to join him in
America. The operation, sadly, is botched, and the renamed Hedwig is left with
an “angry inch” of flesh between her legs. Her husband eventually leaves her and
she winds up in a Kansas trailer park penniless.
Hedwig pursues her dream as a
rock star and eventually bonds with band mate Tommy Gnosis. He, too, betrays
her and runs off with the songs they had collaborated on, and he goes on to
become a bigger name, a bigger star, much to Hedwig’s chagrin. She tries to
persevere despite the obstacles that had been thrown her way. The climactic
ending is theatre at its best.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is mounted at the Olney Center’s 1938 Original Theater.
With a creative set designed by Jacob A. Climer (who also designed the punk-like costumes), Hedwig’s rock’s identity
is portrayed in a locale to simulate a club with all its grunginess and idiosyncrasies
and an onstage four-piece, two singer band, “The Angry Inch” that is perennially
moving from one rundown venue to another.
The set features a hodgepodge of
odd objects like a bunch of desk lamps, plastic Christmas figurines,
statuettes, wigs, trunks, speakers and even a Menorah to signal the beginning
of Chanukah. There’s a loosely hung
curtain with the show title on it, and behind it a projection screen that is
used throughout each song under the projection design by Patrick Lord and the
spectacular lighting design by Max Doolittle (whose name strikes me as an
oxymoron) including strobe lighting, spotlights and stage fog replicating the
intense atmosphere of a rock concert.
With that backdrop Park as
Hedwig takes over. Moving about the stage from one corner to another, laying on
the floor, sitting on a speaker, belting out the songs, Park tells the story.
"Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could bring the house down."
Hedwig banters with the
audience, offers jokes with some of them improvised and confesses her tragedies
with a chip on her shoulder and revenge on her mind. As she moves to the side
of the theater to open a door, we hear the sound of Tommy’s concert in a nearby
venue. The music and fog drifting in the theater from that concert with Tommy’s
voice speaking the usual clichés to his audience angers Hedwig more, and
rightfully so. Kudos goes to Sound Designer Matt Rowe for that effect.
The infusion of local connections
is an amusing touch as that concert where Tommy is performing, says Hedwig,
happens to be at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in nearby Columbia. Md. And
contemporary subjects are brought into the show like a reference to the Proud
As compelling and entertaining
those monologues are, the performances of the songs alone are worth the price
of admission. Park has an outstanding tenor voice and can belt out the rock
songs with vigor and clarity and can effectively emote Hedwig’s plight in the softer
“Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of
Love,” “Sugar Daddy,” ‘Angry Inch,” “Wig in a Box,” “Wicked Little Town,” “The
Long Grift,” “Hedwig’s Lament,” “Exquisite Corpse” and “Midnight Radio” all
tell Hedwig’s story.
Some of these numbers feature
the singing of Helen Hayes Award nominated Chani Wereley. She plays Hedwig’s
current husband and back-up singer in the band, Yitzhak, a Jewish drag queen
from Croatia. He is embittered by often
being on the receiving end of verbal abuse by Hedwig.
Ms. Werely’s vocal range is astounding
by demonstrating her mezzo-soprano voice in singing a bit of Whitney Houston’s “I
Will Always Love You” and showing off a deep, gruff masculine voice when speaking.
The other Angry Inch band
members onstage who do an excellent job with the punk rock music are Manny
Arciniega, Jaime Ibacache, Jason Wilson and Helen Hayes Award winning Music
Director Christopher Youstra who I suspect was once a headbanger back in the
Hedwig and the Angry Inch breaks ground with a genderqueer central character but
the story effectively focuses on Hedwig’s journey to find her other half, her
soul mate. Hedwig’s life has been scarred not only by the surgical mishap but
by the men she encountered along the way: her father who abandoned her, the GI
who dumped her for another man, the former collaborator Tommy who stole her
music and left her in the ashes.
All that is history, traumatic
as it may be. But to be accepted by
others and to find that other half, she must first learn to accept herself.
That is her task, and we all see ourselves rooting for her because in some fashion
we all must accept ourselves.
Mason Alexander Park turns in an
utterly brilliant performance as Hedwig with their singing prowess, spot-on
comedic timing and acting skills. Charismatic and ubertalented, Park alone could
bring the house down. Under the show’s
expert direction, and the talents from the rest of the cast and musicians as
well as the superb technical crew this astounding electric production soars to
great heights and should not be missed.
Running time. One hour and 35
minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: The show contains
profanity, sexual situations, partial nudity and references to drugs and is not
suitable for young children.