Adelaide Festival Theatre
22 June, 2018
To borrow his own categorisation, John Cameron Mitchell is a “middling” cultural icon. His 2004 independent film Shortbus was fresh and sexy and a critical and popular success. However, it was his rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch about the transformative journey to self-awareness and identity of the title character peppered with songs that would have fitted perfectly on albums of David Bowie, Lou Reed or Iggy Pop that became a “middling smash” and brought Mitchell a cult following of fans who identified with Hedwig’s struggle through many cocoons to the perfect butterfly.
I haven’t seen the musical and I was concerned that my lack of knowledge might hamper me in my appreciation of this concert of mostly Hedwig tunes. However, I had nothing to fear as Mitchell interposed the songs with ample background on the story and characters, as well as a host of stories from his own life revealing the parallels between his journey and that of his creation. The musical score is superb. Sure, Mitchell’s reverence for Bowie, Reed and Iggy is evident in tracks like The Origin of Love, Sugar Daddy, Wicked Little Town and The Long Grift, but the infectious melodies and complex intriguing structure of the songs bore Mitchell’s own impressive stamp. Mitchell’s costume, which looked like a lion’s head glued to an Apollo space ship glued to an A-Frame ladder, was a series of layers ripe for peeling as the character works through his various transformations. The band of Andrew Worboys (piano and musical director), Tina Harris (bass), Jeff Bennett (drums), and Adam Warland (guitar) was tight. However, Amber Martin of Janis Undead fame – effectively Yitzhak to Mitchell’s Hedwig – was a sensation, throwing in a ballsy version of Ziggy Stardust with an equally sensitive version of another Mitchell original, Milford Lake.
The musical may be nearly twenty years old, but its theme couldn’t be more contemporary. As Mitchell pointed out, Hedwig learns that perceived barriers of biology, sexuality and physical appearance are false and that you have to look inside for the truth. That’s becoming an unpalatable message in a world of walls, cages, borders and selfishness. Noting that Mitchell’s criticism was directed at you know who, Hedwig’s anthem Wig On My Head celebrating his end point carried with it a truckload of irony.
After Mitchell finished with the musical’s finale Midnight Radio, the audience stood as one and stood again after his encore The End of Love. Mitchell’s music and message is the antidote our border-protecting world badly needs.