Quite simply, Hedwig rocks the house. Such is the spine-tingling force of the aural, the jarring assault of the visual, Brisbane's intimate Cremorne Theatre was simply not designed to withstand this. And as the headline show in Brisbane’s new cabaret festival, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a brilliantly inappropriate musical choice.
Like the trans-sexual title character, this piece stomps all over musical conventions in sparkling stilettos. It is part thunderous rock musical, part confronting drama; like a night at the Wickham and the Elephant and Wheelbarrow at once (if the Brisbane nightspots reference is lost on any non-residents, think the drag show at the local gay dance club merged with the thumping pub rock of a sweaty beer hall).
And still that sells it short, for the four-piece which shares the compact stage pumps out involuntarily head-nodding power punk with such heady energy. Nor is this some played-for-laughs drag act. Barely hidden underneath the wig and caked-on make-up, amid the bawdy quips and gaudy sexuality, is a character so emotionally raw it hurts to watch.
Hedwig was always an unlikely musical story, yet American indie writer/actor/director John Cameron Mitchell’s script and partner Stephen Trask’s score crackles and pops with such immediacy and ubiquitous relevance. From an acclaimed off-Broadway production to an awarded Hollywood film, the story has quickly become a cult classic.
A gender-confused boy from Cold War-divided Germany undergoes sexual realignment to marry an American man. But the botched surgery leaves Hedwig with an 'angry inch', creating some human hybrid freak that defines the struggle for identity and the eternal search for the 'missing half' of self. Divorced and broken in America, Hedwig embarks on a musical tour across the country, forming a song-writing partnership and rocky love match with up-and-coming alpha rock god Tommy Gnosis. He is the half Hedwig always wishes she/he was, or could have, or both. But when he walks out, stealing Hedwig’s hit songs, a path of destructive but ultimately triumphant self-discovery begins.
On such a small stage, in front of such a small audience, in such a minor musical in many ways, Michael Falzon’s miraculous Hedwig is exhilarating and exhausting. The accomplished actor-singer, best known for his role in the Australian production of We Will Rock You, makes his debut as Hedwig in Brisbane before joining a national tour.
I didn’t see original local productions starring singer iOTA, but it’s hard to imagine anyone performing this impossibly demanding role better. Whether through the uncomfortably long silences, where eyes heavy with lashes and shadow convey such deep internal conflict; in song with a mighty voice that soars over the thumping beat; or the manic, convulsive climax as his imperfect, near-naked body heaves and sweats and exorcises such brutal defiant rage; Falzon is utterly captivating for 90 intermission-free minutes.
The talent, too, of the musicians/ensemble, led by musical director and on-stage keyboardist Tina Harris, is palpable. Lucinda Shaw as Yitzhak, backing vocalist-cum-roadie-cum-unlikely partner for Hedwig who makes her own before-your-very-eyes stage transformation, shows incredible versatility and vocal range.
There is tremendous craft in everything, really: from the creatively imagined design by director Craig Ilott and grungy set and costumes by Nicholas Dare; stunning new choreography from Kelly Abbey; and brilliant lighting (Stephen Hawker) and sound (Steve Toulmin) design that somehow brings stadium rock to a small arts theatre.
Ultimately, though, it is Falzon who commands the stage and demands respect for his classic social outcast. In a celebration of self-acceptance, it is a performance that deserves to be celebrated.
David M Hawkins & QPAC
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates: Wed – Sun, 8 Oct to 2 Nov
Tickets: $45.50 to $65.75 (inc. fees)