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Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Text by John Cameron Mitchell, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
March 31, 2016

Michael Baird, Anna Skidis Vargas Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Baird, Anna Skidis Vargas
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre has transformed Tower Grove Abbey into a concert venue for their latest production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Introducing us to a complex central character and her dramatic story, Hedwig isn’t a traditional musical. With an immersive experience that involves audience interaction and a dynamic lead performance, this show is unique, entertaining, and challenging all the same time.

This is a well-known show that’s had a celebrated off-Broadway run and a film starring co-author John Cameron Mitchell, as well as an award-winning Broadway revival starring Neil Patrick Harris, who was then replaced by a succession of notable stars. It makes sense that a lot of actors would want to portray Hedwig, a complex and interesting character with an unusual and compelling story. Presented as a 1990s-era concert by East German-born rocker Hedwig (Michael Baird), the show explores issues of gender identity, personal fulfillment, the concept of love and soul mates, and more. Hedwig’s story is revealed as she performs a succession of autobiographical songs, through which she tells the story of her upbringing (as Hansel) in East Germany, and then her botched sex reassignment operation, her move to America and the evolution of her career as a performer, including her influence on another, now more famous, rock singer and former lover, Tommy Gnosis. There’s also Hedwig’s husband and bandmate Yitzhak (Anna Skidis Vargas), whose relationship with Hedwig is emotionally fraught, to say the least.

The casting of Hedwig is essential for a production of this show, and SDT has cast very well with Michael Baird. Baird’s emotionally charged, energetic, powerful performance is the centerpiece of this production. Hedwig’s personal journey is reflected well here, with Baird’s winning performance of stand-out songs like “Sugar Daddy”, “Wicked Little Town” and the especially memorable “Wig In a Box”. Baird is matched in intensity by Skidis Vargas as the conflicted, disgruntled Yitzhak, turning in a strong performance especially on “The Long Grift”. They are backed by a top-notch band, as well, led by music director Chris Petersen as Hedwig’s band leader, Skszp, who interacts with Hedwig throughout the performance.

The whole “rock concert” atmosphere is well-realized here. The bar is operating throughout the performance, with audience members encouraged to go up any time to order drinks. The stage set, designed by Rob Lippert, is appropriately representative of a rock music venue, with a two-level stage and scaffolding flanked by video monitors on all sides. The use of projected illustrations and animations by Ryan Wiechmann contributes style and substance to the show, as do the spectacular costumes by Eileen Engel, and the makeup and wig styles by Priscilla Case. Tyler Duenow’s lighting is also appropriately atmospheric.

This is an excellent, highly entertaining production. I did have one issue with the ending, in that the story seemed to be heading in a particular direction and didn’t actually go there, although when I read about the show online, it appears that it usually does end the way I had been expecting, although it doesn’t in this production. I’m not sure what to think about that. Overall, though, I would say this is an energetic, engrossing, well-staged and well-performed production that is very much worth checking out.

Michael Baird and Cast Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Baird and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is being presented by Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey until April 16, 2016.

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