REVIEW: ‘Hedwig’ is Exhilarating Return to Live Theatre at The Warehouse

Editor’ Note: This review was originally published in March 2020 before Covid closed down Hedwig.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Clay Smith is Hedwig. Photo by Will Crooks

Let’s just Spill the Tea now: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at The Warehouse Theatre is MUST-SEE theatre! Bold, brash, in-your-lap, luscious & exhilarating entertainment.

At first sight, The Warehouse Theatre looks as if that devastating Spartanburg tornado may have also touched down on Augusta Street. Scenic designer Elizabeth Jarrett leaves no prop, stick of furniture, or leftover scenery (all from two dozen previous productions) without purpose…or a statement. Even the lower lobby area is part of the ruse.

Traditionally staged as a ballsy and bawdy rock concert, Andrew Scoville (the masterful director of BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson two season ago) expands this concept by moving the action off the stage to other parts of the theatre, including inside and atop an old pickup truck bed camper. And as in past musicals, premium seating (on myriad antique settees and contemporary loveseats and) guarantees front-row interaction with the cast.

In this case, Clay Smith and Miranda Barnett – the actor and esteemed drag personality Delighted Tobehere, and The Warehouse critical and audience darling of The Heath, among other gravitas dramas, respectively.

A Greenville native Smith, who as Delighted resoundingly shocked and charmed America’s Got Talent judges and audiences in a 2015 TV performance, and has been selling-out Drag Brunch shows at Cafe And Then Some (next show March 29) for nearly three years, knows how to work an audience.

Spouting fresh quips and banter at every show with an acrylic-nail sharpened wit, Smith immerses so effortlessly and convincingly into Hedwig from his very first entrance in another Ida Bostian original – custom pink corset, a mini-skirt made of sexy bestudded padded brassieres, and a signature phoenix silhouette you may recognize from The Rocky Horror Show and Spring Awakening.

Behold, a drag queen always has a few tricks up her sleeve (or by appointment in this case). And Smith not only stuns with an absolutely divine vocal candor and strength, but also, not one, but two double reveals crowned by Gigi Monroe’s classic Hedwig/Farrah Fawcett wig-on-wig designs and more Bostian constructions exploring Americana punk through fabrics, texture and all colors of the rainbow.

For non-HedHeads (yes, that’s a thing!), Hedwig’s story in a nutshell is that she fled East Germany by marrying an American soldier and ends up a bitter, third-rate singer/prostitute in a Midwest trailer park and headlining Sizzler restaurants with the band The Angry Inch, an allusion to Hedwig’s ultimate sacrifice of a botched Iron Curtain “sex-change” operation that left their genitalia (and gender) in flux.

Inspired by androgynous 1970s rockers (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) and American pop culture, Hedwig lands somewhere on the genderqueer spectrum between east and west, man and woman, freedom and tyranny – posturing the punk aesthetic of anger and rebellion through fashion and music, but also the abusive treatment of Barnett’s Yitzhak, Hedwig’s defeated husband and “Girl Friday through Thursday.”

Barnett sings back-up on nearly every song in addition to attending to Hedwig’s every whim, from dressing to picking up wigs off the floor, and enduring humiliating verbal wrath when he pines too long at Hedwig’s hairpieces or seeks attention from the audience. Yitzhak was forced to sacrifice his drag career to come to America. And Hedwig, the tragic figure, lashes out with insults or “immigration raids” whenever the power-dynamic of this relationship founded on co-dependency is threatened.

In a role that won Lena Hall a Tony Award for the 2014 revival with Neil-Patrick Harris, Barnett’s Jewish Croatian immigrant shows an actor in top-form, pulling off the drag king persona with measured precision that crescendos into epic transformation.

By Broadway musical standards, the score by Stephen Trask is rather lean – only a dozen songs – but there isn’t an ounce of filler in the music or the book by John Cameron Mitchell from the metal-glam “Tear Me Down,” to the punk riffs of “Angry Inch,” and sad ballads like “Wig in a Box” or “Wicked Little Town,” and the latter reprised by Smith in a smashing rendition as American Tommy Gnosis – the rock star and former lover who stole Hedwig’s songs and is, just incidentally, playing across the street to a sold-out Fluor Field.

This version of Hedwig sticks to the original country-western rhythm of “Sugar Daddy” instead of the rock-and-roll arrangement in the 2014 revival (my personal favorite)and also wisely doesn’t include the odd “The Hurt Locker” musical bit.

To his credit, Smith’s Hedwig is not over-the-top vicious, as other portrayals I have seen, and certainly earns redemption and love, no matter how rough Hedwig is with those costumes and wigs (two dozen hairpieces in the show). So much, in fact, The Warehouse had to bring in legendary stylist Victor DeLeon, on wig maintenance person for this production

In what s essentially a two-hander musical, the Smith and Barnett have been coaxed into sublime performances under the tutelage of music director LeRoy Kennedy who also leads The Angry Inch jammin’ band on keys with Brett Batson at the drums, Logan Belcher on bass, and Aaron Brakefield on guitar.

Kevin Frazier’s boundless and bountiful use of lighting effects lend every scene that Kodak moment, while Jon Breitmeier’s soundscape is pitch-perfect, especially the exterior Tommy Gnosis moments.

Cassidy Bowles is properties designer, Quinn Xavier Hernandez is assistant director, Louise Ochart returns as stage manager with Elizabeth Colson as ASM.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through October 17. For tickets and additional information, call The Warehouse Theatre box office at (864) 235-6948 or visit warehousetheatre.com.

COVID POLICY- PROOF OF VACCINE/NEGATIVE TEST RESULT REQUIRED, MASKS REQUIRED.

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