The star in this case is Kevin Cahoon, who did not play Hedwig in the movie (that was John Cameron Mitchell, the playwright). Cahoon comes on to a searing, Hendrix-style rendition of "America, the Beautiful," waving a quilted cape that unfolds like two wings, flaunting a deeply felt political message spray-painted on the cloth: "Yankee Go Home ... With Me." She wears a trashy blonde wig, thick, silty lipstick, and mixed proportions of denim, leather, and ripped fishnet. The Angry Inch band launches into one of its anthems, "Tear Me Down," which compares Hedwig to the Berlin Wall. The crowd by this time has been whipped into frenzy, and when the song ends, Hedwig picks up a can of malt liquor, which she sips through a straw, and says, "Thank you. I always love a warm hand on my entrance."
A little background, for the uninitiated: Hedwig "Hansel" Schmidt is an East German transsexual who as a young boy imbibed songs by Queen, Lou Reed, and Toni Tenille from a radio in his mother's apartment. In 1988, as a teenager, Hansel escaped to the West by marrying a black American G.I. named Luther. There was a catch, however: For the marriage to pass inspection by the East German authorities, Hansel had to have a sex change. The operation was botched, and Hansel-cum-Hedwig ended up with a one-inch mound of flesh that left her in a sort of gender twilight. One year later, while Hedwig sat disconsolately in a double-wide in a Kansas trailer park, the Berlin Wall fell.
Now she's touring the U.S. with an outdated glam-rock band, and dominating Yitzak, her sulky Jewish backup singer. On a parallel tour through the U.S. is a hugely popular, empty-headed pop star named Tommy Gnosis, a military brat from the Kansas trailer park who owes most of his talent and fame to Hedwig. In San Francisco, it seems, Tommy's playing Pac Bell Park, and occasionally during the show Hedwig kicks open the back door of the shabby Victoria Theatre so we can hear the sea-like roar of Tommy's fans.
Hedwig narrates the whole story herself, sometimes with the help of her now-famous songs ("Sugar Daddy," about Luther, and "Angry Inch," about the operation). She wanders the stage like a Vegas lounge act, making fun of her band and teasing the audience. She speaks in a tortured German accent, but slips out of it sometimes to play Luther or Tommy. Her best song, "The Origin of Love," gives a campy, half-serious treatment to the Platonic story at the center of the show. (Plato's Symposium imagines humans as sexually divided creatures, descended from round beings that were split by lightning and doomed to search for their opposite halves.) Hedwig follows the song with a smarmy quip: "How can two people become one again? And if it happens while we're driving down the Autobahn, can we still use the diamond lane? [Groans from the audience.] Practical questions ..."
The live production isn't as seamless and exciting as the movie, which alternates a full-cast script with clever cartoons and faux concert footage. Cahoon, for one thing, is no John Cameron Mitchell. His singing voice doesn't have the same range, and his graceless German accent starts to grate. But that doesn't mean the national tour of Hedwig Live is just a victory-lap knockoff of the original Greenwich Village show, designed to raise a little money after the wild success of the film. Cahoon alternated with Mitchell in the original stage production in New York, and later took the show both to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and to Boston before the movie came out; in other words, he's a high-quality imitation of the movie heroine.
It's also fascinating to watch Hedwig work so well as solo theater. One of the strongest bits of the show is a quiet conversation between Hedwig and a nerdish young Tommy. The scene boils down to a pathetic trailer-park drama -- the end of a romance -- but Cahoon achieves a silent intensity between the lines, standing in a spotlight with his mascara smeared, thoroughly immersed in Hedwig's tragedy, while electric fans blow air -- noisily, seedily -- through the vents of the old Victoria's ceiling.
Hedwig was site-specific at Manhattan's Jane Street Theatre, so director Jason Eagan (along with Cahoon) has reworked the script for the Victoria, bringing the house itself in as almost another character. "This faded shell of an entertainment palace," Hedwig tells us, used to be a home for vaudeville as well as old-fashioned burlesque. Lately the place has hosted a number of second-rate John Fisher shows, but we shouldn't have that problem for a while. Hedwig is, well, open-ended -- and she's the best thing to happen to the Victoria in years.