Schoolhouse rock: ‘Hedwig’ starts ATL season with a bang

David Hanbury as Hedwig.: Photo by Harlan Taylor

David Hanbury as Hedwig.: Photo by Harlan Taylor

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Starring Scott Anthony, David Hanbury, Jessica Lauren Howell, Angela Motter, Jeff McAllister, Bing Putney and Jon Spurney. Directed by Sean Daniels with music direction by Jon Spurney. Continues through Sept. 30 at Actors Theatre of Louisville. For tickets or more info, call 584-1205 or visit

There’s something in the air at Actors Theatre of Louisville, something reminiscent of that back-to-school aroma of newly sharpened No. 2 pencils and fresh boxes of dusty white chalk. OK, so the cloud of Aquanet hairspray wafting from Ms. Hedwig’s dressing room, one of the sets in the current ATL production, doesn’t hark back to elementary school. Yet this production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” feels like entering a new classroom; it seems ready to jumpstart and invigorate the venerable theater’s season.

Some of the excitement can be attributed to Sean Daniels, the theater’s new associate artistic director who makes his Actors directorial debut with this production. A fresh perspective can inject new life into an organization, and Daniels seems poised to energize the entire atmosphere of the theater. Yes, that is a lot to put on one man’s shoulders, but if “Hedwig” is any indication of his future here, we’ve much to anticipate.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the story of a Hansel, a pretty East German boy who’s wooed by an American G.I. named Luther during the Cold War. The two decide to marry, but the union must consist of a man and a woman. Hansel’s mother, Hedwig, gives her boy her name and passport, and a doctor performs a sex change operation. But the operation is botched — hence the “angry inch.” Still, it allows the two to marry and Hedwig to escape communism … for a trailer park in Kansas, where Luther soon deserts her. She forms a rock band and befriends a shy teenager named Tommy. When he leaves her, stealing the songs she wrote and becoming a wildly successful rock star, Hedwig and her band follow his stadium tour, playing gigs at cheap dives.

David Hanbury (Hedwig/Tommy Gnosis) has big shoes to fill — John Cameron Mitchell created the role of Hedwig, winning a mess of theatrical and film awards in the process. Looking like Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, Hanbury absolutely owns the stage. He prances, vamps and stomps his way through songs and monologues alike, eliciting hoots of laughter and screams of glee from the audience. Yet he doesn’t let the character slip into a caricature. He allows Hedwig’s heart, raw and vulnerable, to bleed out onto her sleeve, but like quicksilver, can also retract the raw emotion and recapture Hedwig’s standard blasé manner.

One of the most heartening sights at last Wednesday’s opening night performance was a strong youthful presence. Who will patronize the theater tomorrow if we don’t cultivate an audience today? Theater may have morphed into a pastime of the privileged, but Actors Theatre does its best to offer rush tickets at discounted prices.

It stands to reason that younger audiences just don’t feel a draw to many plays offered. “Hedwig,” though, is one of those shows that speaks to a younger generation. Not every show can be a rock ’n’ roll one, but one theatrical experience can hook a person for life. ATL’s “Hedwig” just might catch a few.