Following in the transgender footsteps of “The Rocky Horror Show,” John Cameron Mitchell’s rock tuner rang a bit hollow in its 2000 preem at Hollywood’s 500-seat Henry Fonda Theater. Helmed with precision and flair by Derek Charles Livingston, this version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a much better fit within the confines of the intimate 99-seat Celebration Theater. Stephen Trask’s impressive rock-imbued score is given excellent display despite the inconsistency of the house sound system. This extended one-acter still suffers from an overabundance of meandering thematic exposition, but Livingston has lessened the narrative drone by relieving his stellar Hedwig (Wade McCollum) of being the sole storyteller. The plot is now realized by the excellent backup vocalists-turned-character actors Johnny Byrne, Hilliard Guess, Lisa Robert and Trystan Angel Reese.
McCollum offers a stunning star turn as life-challenged Hedwig, seamlessly fusing his well-honed talents as a singer, dancer and actor into a raging specter of angst and sorrow.
Imperiously commanding the stage and everyone around it (including the audience), McCollum’s Hedwig tells her life story, that of a young East German boy named Hansel who was awakened sexually by a black GI (Guess) who insisted Hansel have a sex-change operation before they move to the States together. The botched procedure leaves Hansel with a one-inch protrusion, a pitiful remnant of his previous gender.
Once Stateside, Hedwig is abandoned by her beloved GI in a Kansas trailer park. Discovering the magic of rock ‘n’ roll, she takes on a new name and a new lover in the guise of a callow young military brat. Trying to forge a career in rock music, Hedwig makes her paramour her protege, an act that results in yet another love lost: Hedwig’s young lover becomes Tommy Gnosis (William Belli), a rock superstar who quickly outdistances his mentor.
Livingston converts the Celebration’s interior into a perfect environment for Hedwig, who finds herself touring low-rung venues with her band the Angry Inch, following Tommy around the country while melodramatically “searching for my other half.”
Tommy is occasionally revealed regaling a throng of screaming fans at the Hollywood Bowl, but the real action is onstage at the Celebration. With McCollum’s soaring vocals leading the way, the ensemble rips through the show-opening “Tear Me Down” and keeps the energy up through a 10-number score, highlighted by the show-closing rocker “Midnight Radio.”
The instrumental accompaniment by a competent four-piece band led by keyboardist Danny Williams occasionally renders the lyrics undecipherable. That’s unfortunate since the songs help tell the story and divulge Hedwig’s inner feelings.
But this is not the fault of the supporting ensemble, who are superb vocally and as thesps.
Robert segues adroitly between backup vocalist and her role as Hegwig’s life-hardened East German mother. Byrne and Guess also impress, respectively, as Hedwig’s youthful persona Hansel and his macho GI lover.
Particularly memorable is Reese, who is captivating as Yitzak, Hedwig’s conflicted young “husband,” who just can’t wait to get onstage in one of Hedwig’s costumes. The only weak link in the production is Belli, who has the looks of a rock star but not the vocal power.