Penobscot Theatre’s production of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ bends musical traditions

Posted April 12, 2010, at 5:57 p.m.

Its prowling, preening, fabulously tragic star notwithstanding, it’s hard to get a handle on just what “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is. Is it a musical? A cabaret act? A rock show? A one-woman play with music?

The answer, naturally, is all of the above. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is its own special animal — one resplendent in fishnets, super-high platform heels and several cans of hairspray. When Penobscot Theatre Company opens its production of the show, starting in previews on Wednesday, it’s sure to confound a few people, and delight plenty of others. Dirty rock guitar, R-rated humor and a transgendered main character — “Forever Plaid” it isn’t. Which is precisely why director Scott R.C. Levy chose it.

“It’s not mainstream. It’s not a standard musical by any stretch,” said Levy, who was pleased to discover earlier this month that “Hedwig” will be revived on Broadway this fall. “It’s one of my all-time favorite shows. It’s gone beyond being a cult classic to being a part of the contemporary American canon.”

It’s also not as different from “Plaid” as you might think. Both take place in the present day, both address the audience directly and both offer a revue of songs structured around a plot. In this case, it’s in the idiom of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and it’s a story of love found, love lost, identity crisis and personal revelation. And wigs.

It’s all about Hedwig, who was originally Hansel, an “East German slip of a girlyboy,” who falls in love with American serviceman Luther Robinson. The only way they can marry and Luther can take Hansel back to America is if the boy undergoes a sex change. The operation happens, but the doctors mess it up, leaving Hansel as the not-quite-female Hedwig, with the eponymous “angry inch” of the title. Luther abandons her in a trailer park in Kansas, and Hedwig is left alone, with only her songs — which, in turn, were stolen from her by her former musical partner, who later becomes a rock star known as Tommy Gnosis.

Playing Hedwig is New York-based actor Scoop Slone. With his piercing blue eyes and commanding, catlike stage presence, he’s a natural for the role of the enigmatic, flamboyant Hedwig — a role he has been longing to play for many years. He came to New York auditions for the show last January, having already memorized the songs and the lines.

“I had a lot of preconceived notions about who Hedwig was. I saw her as kind of a Courtney Love figure, a busted-up, trashy, tragic diva who is very angry about a lot of things,” said Slone. “But she is so much more than that. She’s very complex. She’s much more likable. She has her own mythology, her own unique story. I needed [Scott] to help me realize that.”

Slone has played Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the famous character from the camp classic “The Rocky Horror Show,” in two productions of the show. The similarities between “Rocky” and “Hedwig” mostly end there, though — aside from the cross-dressing done by the actors, “Hedwig” is not “Rocky.” Hedwig spends the entirety of the show onstage with her band, telling her alternately funny, angry and sad story to an audience, with whom she interacts regularly.

“She’s someone who grew up with a not-so-good childhood, who has a lot of tragedy happen to her at a very young age, and ends up losing everything — her home, her art, her identity,” said Slone. “I think a lot of people can understand a lot of what she says. It reaches across gender and background.”

The band, the Angry Inch, is made up of local musicians, including drummer Chris Viner and bassist Gaylen Smith, both of whom play in the jazz group the Colin Graebert Trio, and keyboard and guitar player Chad Arsenault. Rounding it out is guitarist Sasha Alcott, who by day is a chemistry teacher at Bangor High School, and by night is a member of Bangor rock band Queen City. She plays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s transgendered boyfriend, a mostly nonspeaking role that typically doesn’t require guitar playing — but Alcott had the skills to do both. All five musicians and actors onstage are clad in rock star duds, designed by longtime PTC collaborator Lex Liang. Expect lots of leather, lace, zippers, glitter and heels that defy gravity.

It’s hard to say what’s more memorable about the show: Hedwig herself, or the music. The songs range from the sly, sexy, honky-tonkin’ number “Sugar Daddy,” to the beautiful but terribly sad “Wicked Little Town,” to the blast of glam rock energy that is the opening song “Tear Me Down.” All were written by Stephen Trask, who wrote the show with the original Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell, in the late 1990s.

“These are songs that are as popular outside of the show as they are when they’re in the actual show,” said Levy. “It’s clearly going to appeal to some people who have never been to a show at Penobscot before. It draws on a different kind of audience, and it’s one that we’re excited to bring in.”

It may be that the heart of “Hedwig” lies in “The Origin of Love,” a gorgeous, powerful ballad that retells Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s “Symposium.” The song explains that there were originally three sexes of human beings, the “children of the sun” (man and man attached), the “children of the earth” (woman and woman attached), and the “children of the moon” (man and woman attached). All were once two-headed, four-armed, four-legged beings. Angry gods split them in two, leaving the separated people with a lifelong yearning for their other half.

“In the end, it’s just a really beautiful story,” said Slone. “You can’t help but kind of like Hedwig.”

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” opens at 8 p.m. Friday, April 16, at the Bangor Opera House. Previews are set for 7 p.m. April 14 and 15, and shows continue at 5 p.m. April 17 and 3 p.m. April 18. The show runs through May 2. A limited number of stage side seats are available for $15 each show. For more information, or for tickets, call 942-3333 or visit www.penobscottheatre.org.

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