REVIEW: The Synthesis Experiment Debuts with Electric ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

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BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

When Jonathan Lewis and Anna Lyles set out to launch The Synthesis Experiment in Asheville, their aim was to establish an anti-establishment theatre.  And by debuting with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Toy Boat Community Art Space, they have succeeded.

It’s hard to imagine it’s been almost 20 years since “Hedwig” first unleashed her unconventional story Off-Broadway. Since, “Hedwig” finally made it to Broadway in 2014 in a Tony-winning revival starring Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall.

Conceived by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask, this guerilla and brazenly-original show bends genders and genres, uniquely muddying the lines between theatrical musical and rock show, while challenging the notions of male and female, yen and yang, alpha and omega, east and west, and slavery and freedom.

Bitter, insecure and cursed with the acerbic tongue of a drag queen, Hedwig is more genderqueer than trans woman. And star Jonathan Lewis is emphatically bodacious and bawdy in this dream role.

Eschewing the infamous and freakish super-feathered blonde hair for a fluorescent red punk wig (a la Ziggy Stardust to the 12th power), Lewis is ready for anything, stomping his purple Converse high-tops so hard on the mini-platform, and I thought it was going to give way.

In a spot-on broken English/German accent, Lewis is totally immersed in character: crass, curt, abusive and an expert ad-libber in this high-energy show as he tells Hedwig’s story of growing up in the 1970s in East Germany and daydreaming to American rock airing on the Armed Forces Radio Network in Berlin.

Through feisty narration and queerpunk and glam-rock songs like “Tear Me Down” and the beautiful Bealtles-ish pop power ballad “Wig in a Box” (replete with a short sing-along), Hedwig tells her sordid journey  that lead her to America and this Asheville dive she is playing in with her band The Angry Inch.

In an excellent rendition of “Sugar Daddy,” Hedwig (born Hansel Schmidt) meets at the Berlin Wall American soldier Luther, who entices Hansel with American candy and encourages him to dress in drag.

And the band’s peculiar name is explained later in “Angry Inch” as a botched sex-change operation in an effort to marry Luther and settle in the Midwest where Hedwig is without genitalia and sustains on odd jobs (mostly blowjobs) and a babysitting gig where he meets teenage Tommy, who goes on to have a successful music career with songs they co-wrote. Hence, the bitterness.

Lyles (also in a spot-on accent) is Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak and mostly sings back-up but eventually morphs and unleashes some sumptuous vocal stylings in tunes like “The Long Grift.”

The Toy Boat Space, an artsy fringe venue that with an eclectic mix of patrons, is a fitting space for such a gutsy endeavor in which Hedwig, while not as destructive as Green Day, has a break-down and trashes  the props and microphones.

Music Director Cody Lovell, whose previous credits include similar rock fare: “American Idiot,” “Rock of Ages” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” shows his prowess on the electric guitar as Skszp (in silvery strapped-wedge heels)

The strangely-garbed Angry Inch band includes Danni Iosello as Schlatka on drums;  Daniel Zeitlen as Skutt on the keyboard (dressed ready for “HAIR!” or “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and bassist Jerry Dean in his skivvies as Jacek.

This exciting and raw show is directed by Robert Malbrough, who directed world-premiere productions of “The Unexamined Life,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” and “A Shield No Longer” and recently served as assistant director on the world premiere of Academy Award-winning author James Lecesne’s play “The Mother of Invention” Off-Broadway at Abingdon Theatre Company.

Opening did was not without a few goofs. The video signal was lost on the TV showing Tommy Gnosis’s competing concert. The producers probably should have strived for projection. And the lyrics in “The Origin of Love,” based on Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, were hard to discern while the  puppet show that explained the concept of wholeness and completion was a little wonky.

“Hedwig” is definitely not for everyone. The music is essentially hard-edged rock and I doubt that few in the audience knew what they were getting into. Just have an open mind and enjoy the ride.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH runs through Oct. 21, Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m. and two shows on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Midnight, at Toy Boat Community Art Space, 101 Fairview Road, Asheville, NC. Tickets are $20 General Admission, $15 Under 30. For tickets, visit synthesisexperiment.brownpapertickets.com

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