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Monday, November 29, 2021

An Electric 'Hedwig' Rocks Olney

Mason Alexander Park stars as Hedwig
From the moment Hedwig ran down the aisle from the rear of the theater to the stage clad in black knee-high boots and stockings, black fishnet hose with runs in them, tight denim (very) shorts, elbow length red leather gloves, a glittery top, abundant makeup and a huge blond wig after initially being concealed by a silver box, rocking to the explosive song, “Tear Me Down,” I knew that I would be in for quite a ride. And based on the opening night audience’s raucous reaction, they realized it, too.

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 clich├ęs 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 Boys.

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 numbers.

“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 day.

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.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through January 2, 2022 at the1938 Original Theater of the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. Tickets may be purchased by calling 301-924-3400 or by visiting here.

Mason Alexander Park as Hedwig and Chani Wereley as
as Yitzhak rocking out a number

Photos: Stan Barough

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