2018 TRUE WEST AWARDS, Day 23
Nick Sugar extended the spectacular history of Hedwig in Denver with a production that got everything just right
Nick Sugar’s history with Hedwig and the Angry Inch goes back eight years. But the settled past became the urgent present in January when the acclaimed director unleashed a spectacular new version at the Aurora Fox that seamlessly joined past and present like two sides of a missing whole.
Denver’s Hedwig history begins with Director Brian Freeland, who introduced the story of the East German girly-boy turned rock diva to Denver audiences in 2002. In 2010, Sugar came out of a four-year performing hiatus to star in a run directed by Bob Wells at the Avenue Theater. Sugar proved to be the quintessential “internationally ignored song stylist,” winning the Denver Post Ovation Award for Best Actor in a Musical. (When The Avenue staged a revival in 2011, Sugar’s Hedwig referred to having won the Denver Post “Ovarian” Award.)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell, is both a trashy and astonishingly literate theatrical experience. For the uninitiated, the story is presented as a driving glam-rock concert woven into a meaningful monologue in which Hedwig tells the provocative tale of her origin as a boy named Hansel who longs to be freed from the oppression of East Berlin. His only escape is marriage to a U.S. soldier. But to accompany him home, Hansel would have to become Hedwig. After a botched sex-change operation, Hedwig now tours from dive bar to salad bar stalking young rock star Tommy Gnosis, who both loved and betrayed her back in a Kansas trailer park.
For The Fox to bring Hedwig back after seven years was to risk the show’s considerable Denver legacy. Sugar agreed to direct and choreograph but chose to pass Hedwig’s high heels to young Jake Mendes, whose brutally vulnerable performance certainly changed the trajectory of his ascending theatre career. Mendes was soon after scooped up by the Denver Center for successive appearances in Off-Center’s This is Modern Art and DCPA education’s Corduroy. Yes, Mendes went straight from playing Hedwig to a graffiti artist to a stuffed bear. And I happen to know that from opening day to closing day of Corduroy, Mendes uttered the word “button” 6,844 times. (And that is an actual tabulation.)
For Hedwig, Mendes walked away with the 2018 Henry Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. Westword’s Juliet Wittman wrote: “Mendes gives a gutsy, all-stops-out performance. He struts and strides, erects defenses and dismantles them. He maintains a love-hate relationship with the audience so that when he invades the first few rows, you’re never sure if he’s going to flirt or spit. Whichever it is, you can’t take your eyes off him.”
Sugar smartly regathered essential members of the 2010 team, starting with Music Director David Nehls and Costume Designer Kevin Copenhaver (also DCPA Costume Crafts Director). Freeland, the man who started it all in Denver, was back with an updated iteration of his remarkable projection design, which for this show is an essential element of the storytelling.
While Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a great story, the Aurora Fox’s production was filled with amazing subplots of its own. Here are a few that made the show special:
- The Fox is an organization presently undergoing its own Hedwig-like identity transformation, coming off the recent resignation of longtime Executive Director Charles Packard. Scheduling Hedwig during the leadership interim was a creative risk that could have gone horribly awry. Instead, everything about it was just right. Packard’s replacement, Helen R. Murray, took the job around the time Hedwig was performed, and seeing it made her feel right about her decision. “I thought to myself, ‘If this is what I have to work with here, then this is a great place to come to,’ ” she said.
- Sugar directed and choreographed five shows in 2018 – many of them at the same time. In January, Sugar opened Peter and the Starcatcher at the Town Hall Arts Center and Hedwig at the Fox – on successive Fridays. He rehearsed one show by day and the other by night. That’s practically unheard of. And in April, he did it again with Town Hall’s Sisters of Swing and the Aurora Fox’s Passing Strange opening a week apart.
- Mendes shared a remarkable chemistry with Norrell Moore as Yitzhak, the Jewish drag queen caught in an unhealthy, codependent marriage to Hedwig. Moore moved to Chicago after Hedwig closed, and it made for a triumphant exit. Moore was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2016 at age 30, and she has publicly shared her journey since, including her decision to undergo a double mastectomy to reduce the odds of a recurrence. As Yitzhak, wrote Bobby Reyes of the Aurora Sentinel: “Norrell Moore has a voice of an angel possessed, and she’s pitch-perfect as Hedwig’s foil.”
- Hedwig was the start of another great year for Nehls that included serving as Music Director for Songs for a New World at the Fox, Xanadu for the Denver Center and his own campy fun musical Killer Wigs from Outer Space, which the Aurora Fox presented as a benefit concert for The Denver Actors Fund.
- Sugar’s entire technical team contributed to the communal feeling of a rock concert, including Scenic Designer Brandon Case, Lighting Designer Brett Maughan, Sound Designer Curt Behm and Copenhaver, whose “crazily inventive costumes are perfect,” Wittman wrote. Even Master Carpenter Jesse Porter contributed to the artistic achievement with brilliant artwork that lined the walls of the theatre.
A year ago, no one knew quite what to make of what was happening at the Aurora Fox. But after Hedwig, Wittman wrote: “Whatever the company’s future direction, let’s hope it carries forward the charge and energy of this exhilarating Hedwig.”
Critics Corner: “Mendes has to be able to turn on a dime as Hedwig to pull off this performance. He handles the hairpin turns like a finely tuned Italian sports car, covered in glitter and wearing an incredible Farrah Fawcett wig.” – Bobby Reyes, Aurora Sentinel
Nick Sugar: 2018
As Director and Choreographer:
- Peter and the Starcatcher, Town Hall Arts Center
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Aurora Fox
- Sisters of Swing, Town Hall Arts Center
- Passing Strange, Aurora Fox
- Green Day’s American Idiot, Town Hall Arts Center
As a performer:
- The Laramie Project: A 20th anniversary reading, BDT Stage
Jake Mendes: 2018
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig, Aurora Fox
- This is Modern Art, Dose, Off-Center
- Corduroy, Corduroy, DCPA Education
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Cast and creatives
- Hedwig: Jake Mendes
- Yitzhak: Norrell Moore
The Angry Inch:
- Andrew Fisher (Skzzp): Keyboard/Band Leader
- Jason Tyler Vaughn (Krzyzhtof): Guitar
- Austin Hein (Jacek): Bass
- John Olsson (Schlatko): Drums/Percussion
- Nick Sugar: Director and Choreographer
- David Nehls: Music Director
- Jen Orf: Stage Manager
- Brandon Case: Scenic Design
- Kevin Copenhaver: Costume Design
- Curt Behm: Sound Design
- Brian Freeland: Projection Design
- Brett Maughan: Lighting Design
- Master Carpenter: Jesse Porter
- Spotlight Operator: Ts’eh Cacek
- Sound Operator: Robert Harbour
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 18th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2018 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org