John Cameron Mitchell's cult hero(ine) Hedwig Robinson was born in New York's ’90s downtown performance scene, growing up alongside the discourse that might best describe the character Mitchell honed from grungy drag clubs to Off Broadway theaters to a minimally budgeted but much-adored 2001 film adaptation. Hedwig and the Angry Inch's title character begins as a male-identified child in Communist East Berlin but winds up a female-presenting punk-rock troubadour in the U.S., trailing after her (maybe) lost love, the rock star Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig doesn't quite identify as what we'd now call transgender; in a recent interview, Mitchell suggested his creation might prefer a less binary term, such as genderqueer.
Nevertheless, Hedwig persisted, eventually reaching a Broadway debut in 2014 that initially starred Neil Patrick Harris (who received one of the production's four Tony Awards). Three years later, a touring cast of that Broadway production has finally reached Chicago, and it's a stunningly realized version of director Michael Mayer's revision. The production values, from Julian Crouch's scenic design to Kevin Adams's lighting, are breathtaking.
But, again, we're talking about a property that found its most devoted fans when it was playing in a venue with the approximate capacity of the Double Door. Hedwig made its way to Broadway largely on the strength of Harris's following, and then on the actors who followed him: Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, Darren Criss. At Wednesday night's Chicago opening, I found myself wondering if the Oriental Theatre's massive audience had any recognition of Tony nominee Euan Morton, whose work as Hedwig is frankly astonishing. Hannah Corneau, as Hedwig's put-upon, androgynous spouse Yitzhak, also deserves praise. I can only hope the Oriental's audiences can properly appreciate how sharp these performances are from actors they've never seen on TV.