My friends were skeptical when I told them we'd be spending Saturday night watching a musical about an East German transgendered rock-star wannabe with platinum spaceship hair. It took some not-so-gentle persuasion -- not to mention a couple of steins of Hefeweisen at Cafe Berlin -- to assure them that Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Lida Project Experimental Theatre company's current production, would have little in common with the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre. These people, bless them, do not share Backwash's enthusiasm for such things as the upcoming Sound of Music sing-along at the Paramount Theatre (see Night & Day, page 40). And I couldn't blame them for holding a generally dim view of the "rock opera" genre: I spent a week apologizing to one friend after subjecting him to an agonizing touring-company rendition of Tommy when it stopped at the Denver Performing Arts Complex earlier this year. And after recalling some unpleasant memories of Jesus Christ Superstar dance sequences, I had to concede that, more often than not, rock musicals simply do not rock.
So, then, how to explain the fact that, about two minutes into this play's opening song, my friend turned to me and proclaimed that Hedwig and the members of his/her backing band, the Angry Inch, were the best performers he'd seen on a Denver stage in years? Or the fact that, by the end of the show, one of my companions was in tears and another was shouting for an encore? Simple. Hedwig has much more in common with a late-night cabaret-style show at CBGB than it does with a stuffy, button-down matinee. And, yes, it rocks.
Essentially, Hedwig is a really great concert, one with footnotes that outline the story of a young boy born on the communist side of the Berlin Wall who discovers Lou Reed and redemption through a clandestine radio broadcast that beams in through his mother's oven. He eventually escapes Germany and lands in a Midwestern trailer park, where he begins an earnest pursuit of the recognition he believes is his due but which ultimately proves elusive. Rather than attaining superstardom, Hedwig is betrayed by his "other half," a successful poseur named Tommy Gnosis who steals his songs and becomes a huge, if hollow, star. Along the way, Hedwig leaves his mother, his homeland and most of his penis behind. (The story of Hedwig's botched sex change serves as the raw material for "Angry Inch," an explosive anthem that provides one of the show's many musical highlights.)
Told through a series of monologues, flashbacks and songs, Hedwig is like an explicated Ziggy Stardust-era club show from David Bowie -- an artist from whom the Hedwig character borrows a vocal style and an affinity for gender-bending. In this production, the effect is heightened by the clinking of bona fide bottles and the swirl of cigarette smoke. Before the film version of the play became a huge indie hit, Hedwig enjoyed a riotous off-Broadway run in a non-traditional New York theater venue that allowed John Cameron Mitchell, its star and creator (and son of a Colorado Springs military man), to vamp amid the crowd. The Denver version, presented in an "environmental" setting at the Wave nightclub on Champa Street, takes the same approach, allowing audience members more accustomed to dive bars than drama houses to relax and even have a cocktail during the show. (Leading by example, Hedwig consumes about a fifth of vodka during the hour-and-a-half-long affair.)
In the audience for Saturday's show were groups of obvious "Hed heads," fans who display a devotion normally seen only at Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings. The play is currently back on the boards all over the world: Since the script became available for licensing, productions have popped up in Minneapolis, Milan, and all points in between. Lida is the first company in this state to take on the piece; considering the demands the play makes on a director and cast, it's easy to understand why Colorado thespians have been relatively slow to tackle it. For Hedwig to succeed, it requires a multi-talented protagonist as well as a believably bombastic band.
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Fortunately for us, Lida has conjured up both. Possibly because the lead role is so demanding, actors Cristofer Lix and Brian Upton share the job, alternating with each show. Upton, who donned the big wig and shiny lips for the performance Backwash saw, not only has enviably long and shapely legs, but he's got the pipes to handle to score's difficult movements, too. He channels Ethel Merman as effectively as he does Wayne Kramer.
Musical director Colin Bricker (who recently collaborated with imaginative Denver guitarist Janet Feder) wisely turned to the local music community -- rather than the drama club -- to fill out Hedwig's band. Space Team Electra drummer Kit Peitzel plays Angry Inch skinsman Schlatko, while sometime-Munly affiliate Sara Mykin Casperson dons faux facial fur for the transgendered role of Yitzak, Hedwig's oft-jilted paramour and backup singer. Guitarist John Rasmussen and keyboardist/ bassist Marty Pullam both do an admirable job of looking alternately annoyed by and enamored with Hedwig's indulgences behind the microphone.
In the play's program, Rasmussen is described as "quite pleased to be wielding a guitar again in a project he does not hate." He has reason to be pleased: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which runs at the Wave through November 2, celebrates rock and roll as catharsis, and its soundtrack makes a mighty case for that concept.