When Hedwig recalls what turned him onto to rock and roll while growing up in communist East Berlin, he cites David Bowie and songs such as Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” — musical celebrations of androgyny and queer culture. But it seems that the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch could cite another icon from the 1970s: The Rocky Horror Show. After 20 years, Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems to have acquired its own cult niche and fans. Similar to costumed fans going to late-night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig fans can root for Hedwig and singalong to “Wig in a Box” (“I put on some makeup / And turn on the 8-track / I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf”). The Rainbow Carnage Productions Hedwig currently running at Cafe Istanbul even helps with the lyrics, using improvised bouncing balls on a video projection.
Edward Carter Simon stars in the rock musical about a queer German “song stylist” who marries an American serviceman to escape the Iron Curtain. Not long afterward, the Berlin Wall comes down and Hedwig finds himself living alone in a trailer near a military base in Kansas. The show has a few hitches, but it is still a wild ride full of gratuitous sexual references and punk rock energy.
Hedwig lives in the shadow of his former performing partner Tommy Gnosis, who has gone on to fame using songs created by Hedwig. In cabaret style, Hedwig tells a darkly comic tale of his musical aspirations, but the story is driven by his underlying search for love and acceptance.
Simon comes onstage in a platinum blonde wig with cascading locks and a denim miniskirt and jacket adorned with safety pins in a nod to punk rock couture (though these are shiny and new) and high-heeled boots in a red, white and blue pattern mimicking an American flag. The outfit mixes punk style and queer signifiers, such as a rainbow pattern in the jean jacket.
The show typically includes some worked-in references to locate it in the actual venue and city. Here, there’s plenty of added material, including a backstory about the building and a costume change with a crowd-pleasing dig at another Southern city. The audience seemed to love every minute of Hedwig, and Simon’s ad libs were quick and funny. There are jokes about contemporary dating apps, and no one notices the decades between the fall of the Berlin Wall and arrival of Grindr. The extra bits didn’t really slow down the show, but they distract from Hedwig’s story and the tone set up by the dark humor about his odd childhood, distant mother and first relationship.
Director Kimberly Kaye also performs as Hedwig’s sidekick Yitzhak, a drag queen from Zagreb, Croatia, who has few lines and one solo. With quiet physical comedy, Yitzhak almost steals some scenes as she skulks behind Hedwig, who frequently is cruel to her.
Hedwig has to carry the show, and Simon has more than enough confidence and energy to do that. He has a deep voice and doesn’t hit all the high notes, but he commands the stage. His portrayal of Hedwig isn’t the queerest version of the character; he struts and preens, but there isn’t much of a feminine side to him. The production also adds a costume flourish that’s an odd detour away from the central issue of Hedwig’s queerness.
Hedwig’s band the Angry Inch is solid on raging tunes like “Tear Me Down” and smooth on the ballads “Origin of Love” and “Wicked Little Town.” Band members include Ainsley Matich, Christopher Guzzardi, Jimmy Williams and Sergio Gonzalez Pagan.
The tinkering with gender in the story doesn’t derail the show’s cathartic saga. Hedwig’s story is full of wicked humor and entertaining music to which an audience can singalong, and it’s not hard to see how Hedwig has become a star.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
8:30 p.m. Sept. 15-16 & 20-23
Café Istanbul, New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave.