Performance diary: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS, Streb Company’s FORCES, and Gamelan Kusuma Laras

June 2, 2014

— I had my doubts in advance, but Neil Patrick Harris really pulls off the starring role in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. The flashy show finally making its Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater is way different from the funky lounge act through which the original Off-Broadway production took the theater world by storm. John Cameron Mitchell, the show’s creator and original star, had a scrappy seat-of-the-panties energy and vulnerability that uncannily mashed-up pathos with rock-n-roll spectacle. For all the new production’s conceptual conceit that it’s appearing on Broadway for one night as a special favor on the set of the disastrous Hurt Locker: The Musical, this Hedwig is a big lavish show, smartly staged by Michael Mayer with fantastic sets by Julian Crouch, costumes by Arianne Phillips, and dazzling lighting by Kevin Adams. NPH in no way convinces as “an internationally ignored song stylist” – he’s like Liza Minnelli playing Sally Bowles: dramaturgically wrong for the part, but theatrically totally satisfying. The score sounds better than ever, and the tight young band turns the show into one hot rock concert.

hedwig tommy gnosis

Afterwards, I had occasion to appreciate the enormous amount of time and energy that went into the whole back story about Hurt Locker: The Musical, which supposedly closed at intermission on its opening night. I’d heard about the dummy program for that show floating around, but it’s not handed to ticketholders for Hedwig – copies are scattered around on the floor under the seats, and you have to be savvy enough to pick one up for yourself. It’s a delicious bonus. Every page of the fake program is stuffed with hilarious inside jokes (the copy is apparently written by Mike Albo and others). I’m reproducing the key pages here, for the benefit of people too far away to the see the show. Locals, check it out for yourself! (click on the images to enlarge — read all the obsessive fine print)

hurt locker 2hurt locker 3hurt locker 4hurt locker 5hurt locker 6

5.25.14 – The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals is the exact opposite of Hedwig’s flashy spectacle. It’s small, contained, earnest, pure. I love that it’s a complete departure from their best-known style of dense techno-theater mash-up, but it’s not completely unprecedented: it falls in the category of “record album interpretations,” of which they’ve done two before (Hula and the first stage of what became L.S.D. (..Just the High Points…). The hour-long show has four getting-to-be-elderly female performers – Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche, Wooster artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte, and the company’s manager/producer Cynthia Hedstrom – standing or sitting and singing 20 songs from a 1970s recording of Shaker hymns (the most famous being “Simple Gifts” and “Run Shaker Life”). This being a Wooster Group piece, they are dressed in Shaker costumes but strapped into wireless battery packs and earpieces through which they hear the vinyl recording being played, but we don’t. We see the sound technician dropping the needle on the album, which sometimes lands a few seconds before the end of the previous track, so the singers dutifully echo whatever they’re hearing.


At the end of the 20 songs, they are joined by veteran dancer-choreographer Bebe Miller, also in Shaker costume, and four young guys in contemporary street clothes, and they all perform a series of Shaker dances to some of the same songs. The dances waver between being authentic reenactments and slightly goofy exaggerations. It is a odd but completely reverent homage to a religious community through music and movement.

early shaker dancing
LeCompte has not performed with the company since the mid-1970s, and it’s quite moving to watch her onstage looking both vulnerable and completely committed. Watching Early Shaker Spirituals, I couldn’t help remembering interviewing LeCompte at the time of creating Route 1&9, the legendary mash-up of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and a Pigmeat Markham vaudeville routine that got the Wooster Group in trouble for its use of minstrel-show blackface. “When we read Our Town over and over again, for me it was like saying a prayer,” LeCompte told me. “It was calming and soothing. It was everything you knew had no relevance in your life anymore, but it was still beautiful to listen to. It’s so sentimental, and I don’t know how I feel about sentiment. But I know I love it. ”

5.30.14 – My curiosity was piqued about Streb Company’s latest show Forces when I found out that the creative team included the brilliant theater director Robert Woodruff, writer Jim Lewis (Fela!), and composer David Van Tieghem. Like every other Streb event I’ve seen, it’s a nonstop demonstration of her dancer-gymnast daredevils flinging themselves around the stage, against the floor, against Plexiglas walls, against each other, interacting with theatrical machinery (turntables revolving in opposite directions, a human-sized gyroscope, an elevated box, a Cirque du Soleil-like contraption called the Rocket). I wasn’t sure what Woodruff and Lewis contributed, but I guess they worked with Streb on the filmed interview segments projected onto the back wall during set changes and dancer breaks, recalling Wim Wenders’ film on Pina Bausch. They’re interesting and well-shot, and the performers give their all. I couldn’t take my eyes off of hunky Daniel Rysak but the team captain was clearly brave and virtuosic Cassandre Joseph. In contrast to most theater events, at Streb the audience is encouraged to take pictures and videos and share them via social media.

5-30 streb slice5-30 streb gyroscope5-30 streb rocket

6.1.14 — Gamelan Kusuma Laras, the Javanese gamelan ensemble that I play with, got invited to give a concert at Riverside Church as part of the Christ Chapel Chamber Series. It was a beautiful concert in a lovely setting (the views of the river from the tenth floor were spectacular)

6-1 grants tomb
with a full house of attentive listeners. I love playing with this ensemble, under the direction of our wizardly musical director I. M. Harjito. For this concert, I got to alternate among several different instruments (gong, kempu, saron, and singing with the gerongen [male chorus]). But for me the high point of the concert was hearing two exceptional singers – Dylan Widjiono (below), a regular member of our group, who sang the introductory bawa for Gendhing Onang-Onang,

6-1 dylan6-1 don jessika
and Jessika Kenney (above right), a guest artist who flies in from Seattle to sing for our concerts and whose unaccompanied improvised andhegan for Ladrag Kutut Manggung. Listening to extraordinarily talented, passionate, open-hearted vocalists from just a couple of feet away was thrilling beyond belief. Their singing brought tears to my eyes.


One Response to “Performance diary: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, EARLY SHAKER SPIRITUALS, Streb Company’s FORCES, and Gamelan Kusuma Laras”

  1. Steve V. Says:

    The playbill for “Hurt Locker: the Musical” is the best such spoof since
    the one for “Nothing’s On,” the pseudo sex farce supposedly being performed by the cast of “Noises Off.” The mock playbill insert in the real playbill was one of the highlights of the show. This one looks to be on a par with it. Thanks for reproducing it, Don.

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