East Berlin refugee Hedwig had to leave a particularly private bit of himself—subsequently herself—behind the Wall in order to give physicians the slip and move to America with the G.I. of her dreams. Flash forward one year: penniless, divorced and the victim of a grotesquely botched gender reassignment surgery, creator John Cameron Mitchell's counterculture hero spends her nights playing dive clubs adjacent to her infinitely more successful musical protégé (and unrequited love), Tommy Gnosis.
It's a pitch-black premise made palatable, even heartwarming, by a wicked sense of humor and the identifiable, aching yen for love and liberation that underscores the beautiful monologue in which Hedwig's story is relayed. Paired with Stephen Trask's superb glam-rock score (there isn't one song that couldn't stand alone outside of a theatrical setting), Hedwig has evolved into an enduring queen. Since its original Off Broadway run in 1998, Mitchell's creation has spawned a cult following, a critically acclaimed 2001 film, awards and an upcoming Broadway revival set to star Neil Patrick Harris.
Haven Theatre Chicago's raucous inaugural production, directed by Kyle Trent and starring Ryan Lanning, plays to its own relaxed late-night sensibility without sacrificing the script's deeper and more sophisticated emotional cues. Lanning, gawky and perfectly peculiar in drag, finds a workable mix of defiance and warmth, especially in his concert crowdwork. Lauren Paris, gender-flipped as backup vocalist and blunt lover Yitzhak, makes the best of Hedwig's most underwritten character (Mitchell paints a clearer picture of those offstage than on). Some of the finer lyrical points are drowned out in Theater Wit's brick-lined stage, but the youthful energy driving the show always comes through.