Stalking the stage in a blond wig, high heels and denim miniskirt, Tyler Michaels King presents a spectacle of tawdry, feral mystery at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. And that’s as it should be.
Brash and gaudy, the versatile performer draws us in while wigging out as the ambiguous, “genderqueer” title character of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the glam-rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask that opened last weekend.
Theater Latté Da’s production, codirected by Annie Enneking and Peter Rothstein, is throbbing and visceral. At times it is a blisteringly loud rock concert — ushers rightly hand out earplugs at the door — but it arrests you with much more than arena-sized volume.
“Hedwig” was boundary-pushing when it first bowed off-Broadway in 1998, but the margins it inhabited then have entered the mainstream in the age of Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner.
Playwright Mitchell has tried to keep up with the changes in society by adding updates to the script, which finally made it to Broadway in 2014 with a Tony-winning performance by Neil Patrick Harris that Michaels King seems to echo.
In 90 minutes studded with musical intensity, “Hedwig” orbits all kinds of liminal spaces. The title character was born a boy in East Berlin and had a botched gender-reassignment surgery that left her with vestigial male parts (thus the “Angry Inch,” which also is the name of her band). Now she’s chasing after a former lover, Tommy Gnosis, who stole her music and became famous, playing big venues while Hedwig is stuck touring the backwoods of heartland America (Michael Hoover did the scenic design).
The story remains a bit of a dramaturgical muddle. Hedwig is clearly a libidinous, angry persona, but you may wonder why she is so mean and abusive to her assistant and backup singer Yitzhak (Jay Owen Eisenberg) — unless you happen to know he also is her husband, and supposedly a stronger performer to boot.
Frankly, the notion that Yitzhak has a more commanding stage presence doesn’t cut it when Hedwig is played by someone of Michaels King’s caliber. One of the Twin Cities’ most potent musical theater actors — whether starring in “Cabaret” or “Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story” — he is charismatic and haunting in the title role. His version of “Tear Me Down” is memorably heartfelt. And he finds all the suggestive sauce there is in “Sugar Daddy.”
Eisenberg, too, has a transcendent moment near the finish.
Updated or not, the show leaves viewers with lots of questions. Is it about the birth of a star? A character finding acceptance? Or filling out one’s identity and destiny?
One thing remains evergreen, however: “Hedwig” embraces the ambiguities of people in the process of becoming truer to themselves.