Multimedia Spectacular – A review of Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Glam-rock musical runs at the Gordon Best Theatre in Peterborough until September 27

The incredibly talented Jeff Schissler performs the title role in the Art for Awareness production of "Hedwig and The Angry Inch" (photo: Devon Poole)
The incredibly talented Jeff Schissler performs the title role in the Art for Awareness production of Hedwig and The Angry Inch (photo: Devon Poole)

A decade before Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball there was the amazing Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell’s and Stephen Trask’s outrageous and colourful musical about an East German transgendered glam-rock singer. A cult sensation since its first off-Broadway production in 1998, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been performed on stages all across the world and was turned into an award-winning film in 2001.

Now Art for Awareness, under the direction of Shannon Oliver, is bringing Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the Gordon Best Theatre, but is Peterborough ready for Hedwig? If the answer is yes, then get ready for a high-energy rock n’ roll show of vampish delights and high emotion.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, more or less, a one-man show accompanied by a live rock band. Hedwig is a struggling musician playing small clubs and dive bars while living in the shadow of his former lover, megastar rock musician Tommy Gnosis. Between songs, Hedwig banters with the audience about his often-tragic life, beginning with his days as a young boy listening to ’70s pop radio behind the Berlin Wall, to his botched sex change operation, to his life in a Kansas trailer park and his doomed relationship with Tommy.

Through it all, Hedwig is a person living in an in-between world, constantly searching for validation, love and his “other half.” Colourful, vibrant and funny, Hedwig’s story is also filled with sadness, loneliness and pathos. Working through themes as diverse as sexual identity, abandonment, ego, ambition, religion, love, and the crumbling American dream, the result is a character study of a complicated three-dimensional character surviving on the edge of society who reveals his dreams and sorrows to a captivated audience.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a true multimedia spectacular. Part stage drama and part rock concert, the production also incorporates elements of fashion, art, animation, and audience participation. The stage transforms the Gordon Best into a low-rent rock club where Hedwig’s band, The Angry Inch, takes the stage, immediately breaking into a rock montage of songs by Lou Reed, David Bowie, and T-Rex. And then Hedwig makes the scene, dressed in an elaborate cape and stage costume. An avant-garde experience, it brings a touch of Andy Warhol’s Factory to Hunter Street — a truly unique experience for the Peterborough stage.

Actor Jeff Schissler as Hedwig during a dress rehearsal; Devon Poole is the genius behind Hedwig's costumes, wigs and make-up (photo courtesy of Art for Awareness)
Actor Jeff Schissler as Hedwig during a dress rehearsal; Devon Poole is the genius behind Hedwig’s costumes, wigs and make-up (photo courtesy of Art for Awareness)
Although Hedwig is never alone on stage, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is primarily a one-man show, and actor Jeff Schissler carries the weight of the show on his shoulders.

Hedwig has been a dream role for Schissler, a graduate of the Sheridan Music Theatre Program, and he brings the character to life in such a way that it becomes hard to know when the performance starts and the character ends. Hedwig becomes so alive and believable that you often forget that the show is fictional.

High energy, delightful, and vibrant, Schissler brings his character’s emotions to life through a powerful series of monologues, ad libbing, and inside jokes. But in some of the most interesting moments of the show, Schissler effortlessly takes on other roles during his story — most notably Hedwig’s former lover and advisory Tommy Gnosis. Through voice and body language, Schissler performs two-way conversations between Hedwig and Tommy that almost make you believe you’re watching two separate characters simultaneously.

By the end, a dramatic on-stage transformation occurs in which the blurred lines of the two characters finally bleed together. The experience is incredible and a true testament to Schissler’s amazing talent.

The Angry Inch, which is both the name of Hedwig’s band as well as an inside joke based on Hedwig’s botched sex change, is an essential part of the show that adds to the excitement and electricity of the spectacle. The band consists of musical director Ian Jack on guitar and vocals, Sean Veecock on lead guitar, the show’s producer Geoff Bemrose on bass, and Kyle Nurse on drums. Hedwig is also accompanied by the incredible backing vocals of TJ Collina-Ashton in the role of Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak. Really the only other physical character in the production, Yitzhak plays the role essentially mute but is a comic foil for Hedwig as the two bicker and fight.

Together the ensemble creates a dynamic selection of musical numbers. Although glam-rock is the bridging musical genre for the show, the group also plays with a series of other genres including ska, grunge, metal, ballads, punk, and country. Each number tells a different aspect of Hedwig’s story, and range in emotion from the hard rock feel of “Angry Inch” to the melancholy “Wicked Little Town” and the show-stopping “Wig in a Box”.

Added praise goes to Devon Poole — the genius behind Hedwig’s costumes, wigs and make-up. An essential part of the experience of the show, Poole’s work does a great deal in helping Schissler create such a vibrant character. A special shout out goes to Karen Wood for creating Hedwig’s sensational cape in the opening number, as well as the art used throughout the show. They are magnificent visual touches that add to the multimedia spectacle.

Although a marvellous production, people coming into the show should be clearly aware of what they are getting into. Easily the most subversive of the string of musicals coming to Peterborough over the next year, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not recommended for conservative audiences, as it’s full of light-hearted sexual humour which, although blunt, never gets nasty. The result is that the show has a solid PG-13 rating. However, those who do come to the show will have an amazing time. The electricity of the performance is addictive and immediately seduces the audience.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is an amazing production full of high energy, spectacular musical numbers, and passionate performances. A bold production for the Peterborough stage, Art for Awareness has another hit on their hands.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs September 24th to 27th at the Gordon Best Theatre. Tickets are $20, or $30 for premium seating at reserved front-of-house tables where you become part of the show.

Partial proceeds from the ticket sales will be donated to the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Gender Journeys program and Peterborough Pride.

Hedwig and The Angry Inch Promotional Video