Although it sounds like a children's book, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is actually a "post-punk, neo-glam rock musical" about a nice little boy named Hansel who grows up to become a fierce little woman named Hedwig. Assisting that growing-up process is a botched sex-change operation that leaves Hansel/Hedwig with a lump of flesh she lovingly refers to as The Angry Inch. That also happens to be the name of Hedwig's band, which follows her all over the U.S. as she wows the crowds at the Bilgewater's restaurant chain with her David Bowie-influenced act. Except instead of Ziggy Stardust we get Wiggy Stardust, Hedwig's succession of wigs tracing the entire history of Big Hair, from Tammy Wynette to Farrah Fawcett and beyond. Not since The Rocky Horror Picture Show has an underground-stage-show-turned-movie courted fame with such sheer, in-your-face determination.
As to whether Hedwig will make it aboveground, that remains to be seen. John Cameron Mitchell, who dreamed up the whole thing and stars as Hedwig, draws on drag-queen theatrics more than on Bowie's studied androgyny, for Hedwig is a Marlene Dietrich impersonation that replaces the Blue Angel with Blue Oyster Cult. But there's even more boundary-crossing than that in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In fact, the show's about boundary-crossing, Hedwig having been born in East Berlin the day the wall went up. Even the divide between high and low culture gets crossed as Hedwig croons "Origin of Love," a wistful ballad based on Aristophanes' thoughts about love as recorded in Plato's Symposium. Drifting through the limbo between East and West, male and female, art and life, Hedwig seeks her other half ' the person, place or thing that will finally make her (w)hole.
That's an awful lot to cram into an hour and a half, and I suspect things went more smoothly onstage, where Hedwig alternated songs with patter. Mitchell doesn't have the Ken Russell-ish directorial technique to pull off what he's going for here ' the movie equivalent of a concept album, narrative be damned. And that leaves us sitting on the other side of the wall from Hedwig, who may have been able to reach out onstage in a way she's not able to do onscreen. She nevertheless has a commanding presence and is a damn good singer. (Stephen Trask wrote the songs and lyrics, which, Tommy aside, may be as close as a musical has ever gotten to authentic, original rock 'n' roll.) And it's not like we ever got to know Marlene Dietrich that well. Lonely, confused and blessed with a preternatural ability to wrench joy out of despair, Hedwig may be just the rock icon we're looking for.