Call it the cunning of consumer capitalism.
With a little bit of time -- and some clever marketing -- even the most shocking, transgressive, and rebellious cultural movement can be declawed and domesticated.
So it was for baby boomers, whose hippie revolution was soon turned into treacly nostalgia.
And so it is for their children, the glam rockers and the punks whose anarchic spirit was so beautifully captured by writer-director John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask in their late-'90s Greenwich Village cult hit, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The cabaret-style rock musical, which features such great songs as “Tear Me Down,” “The Origin of Love,” “Wig in a Box,” and “Midnight Radio,” went from a subversive cult phenom to a mainstream hit with a big, loud, lavish Broadway revival in 2014, followed late last year by a national tour.
It may have shocked in its day. In the age of reality TV, it's almost tame. Happily, it's still a tremendously enjoyable show.
A brilliant piece of musical theater about an East German-born transgender rock singer eclipsed by her plagiarizing former lover, the new touring production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch made its Philly premiere Tuesday to a packed house at the Forrest Theatre in Center City, featuring an astonishing lead performance by Euan Morton. It will play through Sunday.
Morton is the latest in a line of remarkable singer-actors to play Hedwig, including Mitchell, who originated the role Off-Broadway (and in the 2001 film adaptation); Neil Patrick Harris, who starred in the revival; and Glee’s Darren Criss, who was featured in the first leg of the current tour.
But no matter how many times you’ve seen Hedwig, I urge you to go again: Morton is sensational.
The Scottish-born actor-singer, who was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony for his turn as Boy George in Taboo, is ferocious as Hedwig. He burns with an intensity and immediacy that is almost feral.
Dressed up in a garish, sleazy outfit that makes him look like a cross of Mick Jagger, Cher, and a two-bit hooker from a 1970s B-movie, Morton sports a massive blond wig as he takes the stage to lead a four-man rock band named The Angry Inch.
But there’s also a fifth man on stage, a strange emcee of sorts with a Peter Lorre vibe who introduces the act and who hangs about helping Hedwig with her costume changes. That’d be Hedwig’s long-suffering second husband -- and whipping boy -- Yitzhak, played beautifully by a drag-wearing Hannah Corneau, whose Off-Broadway credits include Daddy Long Legs at the Davenport Theatre.
In between songs, Hedwig tells us her story, from her life in a tiny flat in East Berlin, where she was raped by her father, an American GI; to her discovery of 1970s gender-bender pop stars like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed; to her marriage to an American GI who helps her get an improvised sex change operation and takes her to America. And finally, she tells us about her affair with Tommy, a young gay man whom she helped transform into a major rock star.
Hedwig would work as a straight rock show. Morton’s singing is as delicious as his acting, and he is ably backed up by the four musicians, who have backgrounds in the indie music scene (and who also tour together separately under the name Tits of Clay). They are Justin Craig (These United States), Tim Mislock (The Antlers, Holly Miranda’s band), Peter Yanowitz (Morningwood, The Wallflowers, Natalie Merchant’s band, Exclamation Pony), and Lexington, Ky., R&B singer and bass player Matt Duncan.
The band was brilliant in the sublimely beautiful “The Origin of Love,” and they brought the house down with the closing number, “Midnight Radio,” for which Morton stripped into his own skin.
See Morton and Corneau talk about the show in a recent interview:
Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Through Sunday at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St. Tickets: $62-$122. Information: 800-447-7400, forrest-theatre.com.