It’s been 20 years since the outsider rock icon that is Hedwig Schmidt (played by creator John Cameron Mitchell) first took the stage at the Jane Street Theatre in New York City, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch first began its slow, stiletto-heeled climb into the American consciousness. Eventually hitting Broadway in 2014 in a star-studded run, which variously featured the talents of Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, and Darren Criss as the titular genderqueer character, Hedwig has never quite gone out of style.
Currently, Hedwig is at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission, directed by Sailor Galaviz and Jason Hoover for Ray of Light Theatre. And it's a reminder of why, after two decades, the show resonates with fans both new and old, who often return to the story again and again.
My plus one for the evening and confirmed “Hed-head,” Curtis, first saw the musical in Seattle circa 2003, an experience he remembers fondly. The actor in the role of Hedwig was "disgusting," he recalls admiringly: spitting at the audience, reeling around the space, shouting and generally behaving like the washed-up, down-and-out character on the C-list circuit first envisioned by John Cameron Mitchell and collaborator Stephen Trask. Curtis attended several performances of the Boxcar Theatre runs between 2012 and 2013—which I saw as well—wherein the role of Hedwig was split each night between multiple actors of various genders, ages, and ethnicities. Curtis has also seen the musical performed on Broadway three times, as well as at Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, where he saw his favorite Hedwig actor to date: Lena Hall (“she’s so amazing,” he gushes).
It’s no dive bar, but the slightly-worse-for-wear Victoria Theatre at 16th and Mission is the next best place to host a rock musical masquerading as a desperate, penniless tour. After the show opens with a heady bang, complete with on-point club lighting (designed by Joe D’Emilio and Leo Hidalgo) and the hard-punching cry of liberation, “Tear Me Down,” Hedwig (played by Coleton Schmitto), reads “one-star Yelp reviews” of the Victoria, making fun of its patchy paint job and tiny bathrooms. Taking the piss out of your locale is a Hedwig tradition, and the Yelp reviews are a great touch (“it’s a good thing San Franciscans are not judgmental or opinionated,” Schmitto deadpans).
As Hedwig, the bulk of the exposition rests on Schmitto’s incredibly broad, undeniably masculine shoulders (the feminine aspects of the character more evident in the shredded riot grrrl clothing and giant blond power-ballad-worthy wig, designed respectively by Maggie Whitaker, Chantrelle Grover, Amy Bobeda, and Becky Motorlodge). While he delivers a solid performance, it doesn’t always feel as if he’s inhabiting the character so much as the center stage. Unlike his foil, stagehand and husband Yitzhak (Maya Michal Sherer), whose powerful vocals and crisp enunciation soar even when not using a microphone, Schmitto has either a delivery or a sound mix that frequently garbles his lyrics and obscures their poetry. This isn’t always a problem—I’ve been to plenty of rock shows where the lyrics play second fiddle to the instrumentation. But for those moments in the show where the soul-searching is done in song, it’s a distraction.
What’s not a distraction is the rock-solid, four-piece band, made up of members of the First Church of the Sacred Silversexual, a David Bowie tribute ensemble; Palace of Trash, a Cockettes-inspired performance troupe; and former Thrillpeddlers, a theater company dedicated to reviving works of Grand Guigonal and Theater of the Ridiculous. It’s hard to conceive of a band more steeped in San Francisco’s queer performance scene than David Walker (drums), Diogo Zavaski (Guitar), Lysol Tony-Romeo (bass), and Steven Bolinger (keys, guitar, and musical direction), and as Hedwig’s long-suffering tourmates, their polished delivery often threatens to outshine their supposed dire straits, and the modest container for their talents that is the Victoria Theatre stage.
The use of space is also a highpoint of the production, as Hedwig strolls along the wings, engages the audience, and at a climactic moment, ascends a tall ladder, tearing off her clothing, and emerging from her Hot Topic-attired cocoon. No mere bit character hiding in the shadows, Yitzhak runs after her, handing her drinks, holding her mic, picking up her discarded props, at times shining small practical lights on her and on selected audience members, actively participating throughout the show.
But the true triumph of Hedwig is that no matter who plays the role, where it is performed, or whatever technical issues may arise, the central message of Hedwig is never lost. The clarion call to “the misfits and the losers” to “lift up your hands” and become whole may sound simplistic on paper. But in a room full of friends and strangers, hands lifted in communal celebration, a pulsing wave of music and light washing over the crowd as Hedwig relinquishes the stage to the long-suffering Yitzhak—dressed to kill in scarlet ruffles and a brunette bouffant—it is the only truth that makes sense in the moment.
Or, as Curtis puts it, ultimately Hedwig is about “being comfortable in your own skin,” whatever skin that happens to be.
“It took years for me,” he admits. “But it finally happened.” It can happen for you too, Hedwig reassures us. You just have to let the rock 'n' roll in.
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' plays through Oct. 6 at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco. Details here.