Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, Phoenix

If you’re here for just the review, skip several paragraphs down. If not, allow the indulgence of a quick word about valley talent, production aims and values, and how it applies to Phoenix Theatre. Since ‘83, because of an earlier career in radio and some television while reviewing film and regional theatre across America, making comparisons becomes marginally easier for this reviewer than perhaps for others, due to nothing other than career movement.

Phoenix and the surrounding towns and cities that make up what most refer to as simply The Valley is easily among the most vibrant and exciting places to enjoy both professional and community theatre in the country. Sure, transplants from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, perhaps Seattle, and even Boston may give a wry smile at the broadness of such a statement, but hold on; we already know that those great metropolises are homes to standout talents and developing productions that often begin there then spread from state to state. But look at what we have in the valley.

Seriously, for family audiences, is there anywhere greater than the exemplary Childsplay? For teens and pre-teens with dreams of molding a future career, who can beat Valley Youth Theatre or Spotlight Youth Theatre? The success of a theatre-in-the-round ranges from show to show, but when it’s being done well, it’s being done at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert. Desert Stages has moved to a new location and appears set for a promising new direction. And how exciting is the prospect of anything new at Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre, even if, for some more mainstream members, you might occasionally leave wondering what it was you just saw? That’s why it’s exciting. And that’s just the beginning.

Look further north to Peoria and there’s great work in production at Theater Works. Go a few exits up the interstate and you’ll find the kind of theatrical enterprise that has all but disappeared from many cities, yet thrives here in the valley: the dinner theatre. Those that have sat at the tables know it’s not unsolicited hype to say there’s first class dining and (depending on the individual production) live, theatrical entertainment in equal measure at Arizona Broadway Theatre. 

Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Center sets such a high standard of professionalism that, as one New York transplant once quoted while seated next to me, it’s our Broadway fix in downtown Phoenix. Speaking of which, when Broadway itself leaves NYC and comes to the valley, catering to audiences that pack a vast auditorium, that newly installed sound system at ASU Gammage now ensures that everyone can hear the dialog and those lyrics of Broadway shows, no matter where you’re seated. And for someone who has tried to enjoy past touring productions in other states seated in what amounted to being in the middle of a giant echo chamber, the ASU system should never be taken for granted.

Then there’s Southwest Shakespeare Company, and Mesa Encore Theatre. And apologies to those not yet mentioned, but not including you is in no way meant as a slight. Your absence from what would eventually amount to a lengthy laundry-list of names only proves the point that’s trying to be made, and it’s this: There’s great theatre to be had for valley audiences, and such tremendous professional level talent within it. That’s what happens when you have such a vivacious theatre community with a vision and a passion for what it’s doing – the list keeps going.

And then there’s Phoenix Theatre.

It began in 1920 when the Phoenix Players gathered to perform wherever they could, including schools and even backyards. Today it has become what many agree to be the valley’s premiere presenter of regional musical theatre. The word ‘arguably,’ was going to be used, but, really, what’s the point?

Look at the theatre’s history and you’ll see a constant desire to change, update, collaborate, and create. In 1924 and up until 1951, the Heard family’s old coach house became the Phoenix Little Theatre. Then a new structure was built on the same McDowell Road grounds. But since that time, Phoenix Theatre has refused to remain stagnant. Renovations continued, expansions were put into place, and today, if you’re among those forced out of the comfort of your living room and back to the box-office because you’ve heard about a lively show at Phoenix with music by ABBA, you were probably among those amazed of not only the show’s production values, but also of what has happened to the theatre since your last visit several years ago.

Turn the corner from the main entrance, stroll past the bar, and look ahead. In what was initially referred to as the Phoenix Black Box, but is now the Hormel Theatre, you’ll see the ever-developing performances of productions often off the mainstream but delivered with that same desire of high-production values used for its main stage productions. In other words, they’re shows more suited (but not exclusively) to an off-Broadway setting. Having Mamma Mia! play on the main stage while a musical like Hedwig and The Angry Inch plays literally around the corner at the Hormel is like a theatrical parallel world. Don’t tell me there’s nothing vibrant about valley theatre.

And after that epic introduction, now the review.

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The beauty of Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre is that you can gut it, remove the proscenium arch dismantle the stage, then put it all back together again with a different foundation, all in order to reflect the setting for anything you want. In the case of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a production born of a collaboration between Phoenix Theatre and A/C Theatre Company, it’s a rock ‘n roll dive, a Phoenix bar and night club, situated just across from the Margaret T Hance Park where, as we’ll later learn, another concert is currently in progress.

The bar is called Shut Up and Drink. On the one side is the lounge area where some audience members can sit back and relax on a cushioned bench, cozily buried among the usual pub/bar artifacts and posters that are either positioned on shelves or pinned against the brick wall. On the other side is the bar itself, complete with booze for purchase, and a large, slightly angled foggy mirror hanging on the wall. And before you ask, yes, it’s a real bar. There’s a working barman, and you can buy drinks. You can even leave a tip.

Center is the slightly raised stage where, as you enter, the four piece band The Angry Inch is already warming up. There’s Michelle Chin on drums, Cullen Law on lead guitar, Miles Plant on piano and Lauren McKay on bass. And if you go to the bar between October 18 and November 12, it’ll be Mark 4Man on piano and Daniel Johnson on guitar. Plus, depending on the night you attend, you might enter to Falco’s Der Kommissar followed by David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. At least, that’s how it was on Friday’s opening night performance, and heads were already banging and toes were already tapping.

To complete the authenticity of being at scenic designer Aaron Jackson’s rock ‘n roll dive, in front of the stage were several tables around which audience members could sit, drink, and enjoy the band. For the rest of us seated up in the bleachers, watching those on the floor completed the illusion of spending a night on the town; those around the tables with their pint glasses might be an extension of the audience, but they looked like part of the show, which, of course, is the idea, and it’s hugely effective.

For those unfamiliar with the off-Broadway, 1998 rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more a rock ‘n roll performance than what some might consider theatre. Of course, the Pasha Yamotahari directed and musically staged show is theatre, but in the way Hormel presented Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill last year, also directed by Yamotahari, what we’re watching is a full night on the stage at a bar where the story is related by the singer via intermittent monologs, spoken directly to the audience between the songs. Where Billie Holiday related key events of her life between her music, so does the genderqueer East German singer and raconteur, Hedwig Robinson (Caleb Reese).

Born Hansel Schmidt, and later given the name Hedwig from his mother after a sex change operation that went horribly wrong, the singer now tours the country with her band and her Jewish drag queen husband, Yitzhak (Alyssa Chiarello). Their relationship is hardly healthy, something we witness throughout the evening’s concert. Not one to share the limelight, when Hedwig’s band members extend their moments with a few extra bars from either their guitars, the piano, or the drums, she cuts them short, declaring a curt, “Unnecessary.” When Yitzhak, who can really sing, extends his solo, Hedwig yanks the power chord from the mic.

The background of their relationship, we learn, is that Hedwig agreed to marry Yitzhak on the promise that he would never do drag again, a plot point that will come with an eventual crowd-pleasing payoff.

After Hedwig makes her smoke-filled arrival through the side exit door and joins her band up on the stage to much applause – “I do like a warm hand on my entrance,” she declares – there’s a considerable amount of ad-lib that follows, referencing local valley areas such as Scottsdale, Gilbert, and Paradise Valley, plus remarks referring to Barry Goldwater and Emma Stone, among others. After a montage of photographs projected on a makeshift back screen, one that hangs from pegs on a line, Hedwig even solicits applause for the production’s own Phoenix Theatre video photographer designer, Reg Madison.

But while there are several laughs, there develops sadness, heartaches, and stories of loss that are truly painful, all delivered by Caleb Reese who is unrelentingly engaging from beginning to end. In addition to leading most of the vocals, Reese tells his story with several different voices, while always returning to his base German accent. A talented musician and rock ‘n roller in his own right, Reese delivers the performance of his theatrical career. If he wasn’t already a local valley resident, Phoenix Theatre would have had to ship him in, just for the role.

But there’s power, too, behind Alyssa Chiarello’s vocals and performance as the much abused husband Yitzhak. When Chiarello leads, which is not nearly often enough, you can tell why Hedwig would be threatened by the character. Yitzhak, the husband, eclipses Hedwig’s talent, and Chiarello at the mic has no problem showing why.

As you might tell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it’s style and it’s overall design, is not going to be to everyone’s taste. And without advance knowledge, the story of an East German man who becomes a woman, left with a one-inch mound of flesh between her legs possessing a scar that looks like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face because of a botched operation may not be the kind of plot point a regular Phoenix Theatre attendee was expecting. But that’s why it’s at Hormel Theatre. When you stand and applaud for Reese, Chiarello, the members of the band, for director Yamotahari and for the production in general, make sure you’re acknowledging Phoenix Theatre and A/C Theatre Company in that applause.  They’re leading contributors that add to the richness of a diverse and vibrant valley area theatre experience, the one mentioned in length above the review.

Pictures courtesy of Regina Madison

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