Fans of the 1998 Off Broadway musical hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” or the film that followed in 2001 already know the title character opens her heart relatively easily, searching for the love that will make her feel whole again after a botched sex-change operation. But if she struggles to find a match in the fictional realm, the real world has been kinder to Hedwig. In the years since co-creator John Cameron Mitchell initiated the role, a variety of talented performers have flocked to inhabit her. Some, like Donovan Leitch, can’t get enough of her. Having previously played the role in New York, he returns in a new, musically vigorous production at the Roxy nightclub.
Hedwig is a generous character, rich enough to display different sides of herself depending on the performer in the role. Mitchell, as writer and originator, remains the definitive version, emphasizing Hedwig’s vulnerable tenderness. Michael Cerveris, who played the character when the show first came to L.A. in a production that — sadly and very undeservedly — flopped commercially, was an ethereal Hedwig, highlighting the existential elements of her plight and finding all the subtleties of Stephen Trask’s remarkable score.
Leitch establishes a highly convincing combination of glamour and trashiness for Hedwig, and a certain underlying happiness that feels like more than just a veneer. He smiles broadly and persuasively, and there’s no doubting the physical beauty that lies beneath the big blonde wig and glittery, creatively flexible costumes provided by Ann Closs-Farley.
This actually brings an important, and often missed, dimension to Hedwig: This is a character who, as a boy named Hansel, could make an American GI fall in love in a flash and who, even in her current state, caught between man and woman, boasts a genuine sex appeal.
Leitch also brings undeniable verve to the role, and the show is most alive when he’s rocking at full volume, aided by the band, a ragtag lot in mohawks and big ties.
In this production, the most memorable, forceful songs are not the love ballads or the philosophical melodies, but the fully spirited numbers, such as the playful “Sugar Daddy” and the punkishly pointed “Angry Inch.”
On occasion, Leitch launches himself into the audience with lively abandon, helped by the fact that this venue better represents the milieu of Hedwig’s world than a traditional theatrical space.
In essence, the entire club is the set, as Hedwig is supposed to be performing at a small music venue (yes, it’s supposed to be divier than the Roxy, but no matter), shadowing Tommy Gnosis, the teenage geek she tutored in rock ‘n’ roll, and who then dumped her and stole her songs.
If Leitch thrives on the vitality of Trask’s music, he’s not quite as effective with Mitchell’s text or Hedwig’s tragedy. At least at the first performance, the musical numbers felt tighter than the delivery of the monologues. Under Joe Witt’s direction, Leitch rushes through the emotional beats of the tale, even the lines specifically geared to Los Angeles.
Still, he’s an appealing performer; he makes up for an inconsistent East German accent with that giant smile. Like Hedwig, he’s eager to please, but not in a cloying sense.
As Hedwig’s much-abused sidekick Yitzak, however, Bijou Phillips simply doesn’t have enough presence to make much impact. Like Leitch, there’s a potent, even glowing attractiveness, but in this case it works against the role — it’s a drag perf that never for a second feels authentic.
In the end, such imperfections mean relatively little. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is as sturdy, and as much of a survivor, as the character at its core. As long as Trask’s music comes through, and the performer has the right respect for Hedwig — both true here — this remains arguably the most offbeat, upbeat and satisfying theatrical work of the last decade.
Hedwig can take all comers, and she only grows stronger.