Most of the time, I can't even wrestle my way to walking in one-inch heels, much less three-inch ones. But the ability to walk in heels isn't Jeffrey Eisner's main talent (though I have to give major props to any guy who can handle 90 minutes of standing, dancing, running and jumping in three-inch heels).
Friday night, the hallway in front of the Rose Firebay Theatre at the John Waldron Arts Center was abuzz with conversation -- the anticipation was almost palpable as people gathered for the Bloomington premiere of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Eisner, a senior musical theater major, presented the show as his final project for the Individualized Major Program.
"I liked the movie…but I don't know what to expect here," said junior Patrick Whitaker before the show. "I'm interested to see how the singing goes."
His was the general feeling among the audience -- a sense of interest. "Hedwig" has garnered an international cult following and has been critically acclaimed in the United States and beyond. For an independent rock musical that opened at the Jane Street Theatre off-Broadway some years ago, "Hedwig" has done exceptionally well.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a tale of an East German young man who suffers a sex change operation gone wrong in order to come to America. Hansel takes his mother's name; Hedwig Schmidt, and is ready to conquer the United States, but finals life isn't easy even in America.
I could compare the show to "RENT" or to "Cabaret." But it is incomparable. It is simply a poignant tale, beautifully crafted in its music and lyrics. It speaks of a boy who grew into a woman. It is a journey. It is a tear-stained paper towel of self-realization and one man/woman's route to coming to terms with him/herself. It's more than just a show -- it touches the audience deeply and powerfully, leaving a profound memory in its wake.
The show isn't all sadness -- it's full of humor, though mostly dark. Witty lines abound: "I didn't have time to diet, so I took out my heart. Now, I'm a perfect size 10!" It isn't a wonder that people flocked to see this show and that the rock musical has become a cult classic.
Once the doors opened, the audience poured into the small theater. About ten chairs had to be added to accommodate everyone who wanted admission. Some even sat on the floor.
The makeshift stage, the brick walls and the lights added to the feel of a seedy night club. On stage, the five members of the band tuned their instruments, preparing for the show. Just another night, just another show for them, it seemed. In reality, it wasn't just another show. The stage was home to "The Angry Inch," Hedwig's band.
At the time of our first interview, Eisner was dark haired and pale and wore a goatee. For the show, he became Hedwig. The goatee was gone. Instead, his face now looked like that of an '80s icon -- eyelids caked with dark blue makeup, eyebrows sparkling green and a giant blonde wig gracing his head. From the moment he jumped onto the stage, Eisner wasn't himself -- he had exchanged himself for Hedwig and truly became the "internationally ignored songstress." In this role, Eisner was spectacular. Eisner combined Hedwig's intrinsic desire for femininity with Hansel's lament for losing sight of what he was and what he had wanted to become.
When Hedwig left the stage, it was apparent that an enormous part of the whole that made up the production was missing. Eisner was larger than life in this role, commanding the attention of the audience in its entirety.
The outstanding chemistry between Hedwig and Yitzhak (senior Amy Birnbaum) added to the overall effect. Birnbaum's powerful voice added a new dimension to the performance. Slight of body, Birnbaum projected a compelling image through her voice. Playing a man isn't always easy for an actress, but Birnbaum was successful in this task. Kudos!
The band at first overpowered Eisner's vocals, but the technical problems were solved quickly. Two guitarists, a drummer, a bassist and a keyboardist created the perfect backdrop for Hedwig and Yitzhak, making the show a true rock 'n roll performance.
After the play, I really couldn't think of any words to describe what I had just witnessed. I was simply speechless -- something that doesn't happen often to me. At first, the show's effect was so powerful that I, along with many members of the audience, did not even realize that it was over. It took about 10 seconds to sink in that Hedwig had just sung her last song.
An audience member said it best after the show: "Amazing! Terrific!"
I've never seen the film directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also co-wrote the musical. Next time I'm at Blockbuster, I'll be sure to bypass all the new releases in Hedwig's favor. When you have an opportunity to see the live performance, take a chance and go. I'm sure that it's different for each individual, but come with an open mind.