Since its off-Broadway premiere, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has garnered a film adaptation, four Tony Awards and a substantial following.
Initially, Toma Tavares Langston was not a fan.
"I didn't get it," the director of Theo Ubique's production, which runs through July 28, confessed via phone. "I was introduced to the movie by an ex-boyfriend, and it was confusing to me. I was very narrow-minded back then."
After seeing the 2014 revival tour, Langston changed his tune.
"Transgender identity has always been around but didn't permeate the community [in 2001] the way it has in the past 10 years," he said. "With [shows like] RuPaul's Drag Race, we now have that in-your-face queerness. We're talking about gender identity now."
Written by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell ( the latter starred in the initial off-Broadway run and film ), Hedwig and the Angry Inch was one of the first musicals to address gender identity. The title character, born "Hansel" in East Germany, suffered from a botched reassignment operation that left her with an "angry inch" of flesh. Now a glam punk rock singer, Hedwig explores her feelings through music as her former lover Tommy Gnosis plays a nearby stadium.
Although the musical is almost two decades old, Langston feels its relevance has only increased.
"The reason I wanted to tell this story so much at this time, [is that] we have this nonbinary individual trying to navigate the world of love in a binary society," he said. "I want people to really see the struggle. Hopefully it will give them the ability to be more compassionate to those who are struggling with their identity and its complexities."
Langston also gave the production Chicago flavor.
"We set the show where Tommy is playing Wrigley Field and Hedwig is in Evanston," Langston said. "We've added some language to make it site-specific to Chicago, and there are a lot of references I think people will enjoy."
Although Hedwig is usually staged as a concert, with an onstage band and Hedwig's gender-bending backup musician Yitzhak the only other visible characters, Langston took the concept further.
"My treatment of Hedwig is more like a memory play," he explained. "I was dying to explore the idea that everything is in Hedwig's head. And we still have Hedwig and Yitzhak, but you'll also get to meet Tommy [and other characters], who are played by backup singers and understudies. I was always confused about the Tommy character, and I read online that other people are as well, so I thought it would help if we saw different actors. You'll get a little treat."
Hedwig's title character must showcase a spectacular vocal and emotional range while strutting around in high heels, heavy wigs and tight outfits. ( Theo Ubique even held a special audition for trans and nonbinary performers. ) Langston is enthusiastic about his leading player.
"As a director, you never really know what you want until you see it," he said. "Luckily, Will walked right in the door." Will Lidke, Theo Ubique's Hedwig, recently played Snoopy in Drury Lane Theatre's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and won critical acclaim for his Seymour in last fall's Little Shop of Horrors, also at Drury Lane.
"He sounds like Freddie Mercury," Langston said. "His voice is so rich and you want to watch him all night. A lot of young kids come in and don't know how to use their instruments, [but] I was blown away by Will's level of talent."
During the rehearsal process, Langston called upon his musical childhood.
"I grew up in a house that was all music: gospel, blues, contemporary," he said. "And I'm a huge fan of '70s rock like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The action in the play represents the struggle of identity, and glam punk rock music has always given the space to explore masculinity and femininity, and how we can blur them.
"I think this show really speaks to the rock and roll language because the songs really move the narrative along," Langston continued. "The music in the beginning is very folky soft rock, something kids would find pleasant to hear. Then we go into teenage music, hardcore and 'I don't know who I am. Why are you expecting this from me?' Then it's jazzy, much more adult and established. By the end of the play, you're going to feel like you're at a rock concert." He added, "You grow up with Hedwig as the music changes."
Langston directs with an eye toward spectators. "I always approach a show as if I'm in the audience," he said. "If I were sitting there watching, what would I enjoy and what do I need to get from this?" He hopes Theo Ubique's production will attract both die-hard Hedwig fans and those who aren't as familiar. "Gender identity can be very complex, and I want the show to explain more of it and make it more digestible for the audience."
Langston was nominated for a Jeff Award for directing last year's world premiere of The Light at The New Colony. Though Hedwig is a decidedly different show, he wants this production to spark discussion and action.
"When I did The Light, we wanted to make sure we were telling a story that people didn't forget when they got to their car," he said. "I'm hoping the same thing with Hedwig, that all people—straight, gay, whatever their backgrounds—walk out of the theater more open to the needs of others and be a little more respectful, even if they don't understand something.
"Be more compassionate to each other, that's all."
Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays Thursdays through Sundays through July 28 at Theo Ubique's Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard St., Evanston. For tickets, call 773-347-1109 or visit theo-u.org .