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'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

A cut above the rest: 'Hedwig' keeps the attitude raw

Friday, August 31, 2001

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Every art medium has strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the division between what works better on stage and on film is as formidable as the Berlin Wall.

    'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

RATING: R for sexual content and language

STARRING: John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask

DIRECTOR: John Cameron Mitchell



During its 1998-2000 Off-Broadway run, the rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" picked up an Obie and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Musical.

Writer and director John Cameron Mitchell starred as Hedwig, a dysfunctional East German drag queen who had survived a botched sex change operation that left him with, well, one angry inch. Presented as rock cabaret with a pan-Slavic band on stage, Hedwig told and sang his bitter story of loving an American rock icon who got his start -- and stole his material -- from Hedwig, his former baby sitter and lover.

The glam and punk songs were good and the narration was wickedly witty, but there were weaknesses. The long, linear story petered out after a while and although the show caught the attention of transsexuals and the non-traditional theater crowd, rock 'n' roll audiences just don't go to theater.

Mitchell also directs and plays the title role in a film adaptation that takes full advantage of a medium that the rock crowd can live with. "Hedwig," playing at Squirrel Hill and Destinta Bridgeville, works better as a non-linear rock musical that jumps between flashbacks and the present.

Although the shock value of seeing rockers in drag withered about 30 years ago, Mitchell's biting satire remains. New characters are introduced who were only spoken about on stage, and Frank G. DeMarco's edgy camera work gives the show a raw, underground attitude.

Although the stage and film versions are equally raunchy, Mitchell surgically removed some of the stage narration to avoid offending broader film audiences (Hedwig's jingle for the Serbian tourist bureau: "We've cleansed ourselves for you"). On film, director Mitchell zooms in on Hedwig and his protege, rocker Tommy Gnosis, creating tender moments that couldn't be created on stage.

While stage productions are opening all over the world, "Hedwig" is destined to live on film at midnight movie screenings for as long as rock 'n' roll lives. Songs that advance the story in stage musical tradition also rock with a vengeance. The few punk tunes sound fresh, but much of Stephen Trask's music is dated to the '80s hair-metal era. Glam power ballads and guitar riffs dominate the score, but it's all sleazy enough to come across as good, dirty fun.

On stage, in a terrific twist ending, "Hedwig" showcases supporting player Miriam Shor's tremendous acting talent. Mitchell's film direction botches the effect, however, leaving Shor with, well, less to work with.

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