Breaking the fourth wall has never been done so seamlessly as it is in Ray of Light Theatre’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The punk rock musical, which first gained a cult following when it opened off-Broadway in 1998, only recently gained mainstream attention in 2014 when it premiered on Broadway with Neil Patrick Harris playing the titular character. The show’s renown only grew as a rotating wheel of Broadway stars — from Taye Diggs to Darren Criss — stepped into Hedwig’s platform heels.
The rock musical revolves around East German transgender singer Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, which we later learn is named after her botched sex reassignment surgery. Part rock concert and part stand-up, the musical masquerades as a stop on Hedwig’s tour, with the singer performing a setlist of songs inspired from her life. Between each song, Hedwig laments to the audience about her past and how she came to be performing at this venue.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek musical that takes full advantage of the modest theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. As soon as the show starts, Hedwig (Coleton Schmitto) immediately addresses the small venue she and her band are performing in by reading “comments” from Victoria Theatre’s Yelp page and pointing out all of its shortcomings, at one point literally shining spotlights on the peeling paint of the venue’s ceiling.
The intimacy of the venue, however, worked in the show’s favor and was easily woven into Hedwig’s narrative as a struggling artist who is following her ex’s (much more successful) tour. Co-directors Sailor Galaviz and Jason Hoover’s resourceful use of the cozy theater gives Hedwig a sense of warm familiarity right away and makes you wonder how this show could ever be translated onto a larger Broadway venue.
The show is a rollicking drive that Hedwig graciously lets you ride along on. It’s an emotional rollercoaster heightened by her audience interaction — from giving a lap dance to a randomly selected participant during the song “Sugar Daddy” to directly serenading a young male viewer when recounting her first real love in “Wicked Little Town.” There is never a moment when the story drags or the audience’s interest waned.
The angsty songs and witty jokes are draws in and of themselves, but they also help deliver a deeper, heartfelt story of Hedwig’s journey to find her identity and come to peace with what she has lost over the years. In the final songs of her setlist, she strips down and removes almost everything — her wig, her makeup, her costume — in turn removing the persona she has used to keep her walls up.
It’s a very raw and delicate moment, tenderly performed by Schmitto. His versatility of talent shines as he carries the entire show, switching emotional beats with every song and playing various characters as Hedwig re-enacts pivotal moments with the people in her life. There were times when Hedwig’s singing was drowned out by The Angry Inch’s music, but Schmitto’s poignant physical performance easily allows the audience to understand Hedwig’s story without hearing her words.
The story of acceptance is as relevant today as it was when it opened 20 years ago yet is further exemplified through the show’s intimate performance, with Hedwig often leaving the stage to personally connect with the audience. The dynamic show seems like a perfect marriage for the dingy but lovable Victoria Theatre. Both enhance each other’s reputation, creating a pairing so well matched that even Hedwig would be jealous.