How do you solve a problem like Hedwig?
How do you make the audience understand?
What do you say to make her see the girly boy she used to be has over the years become a tall she-man?
Oh, how do you solve a problem like Hedwig?
Hide the angry inch, dress her in fur, and give her a band!
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be a lot of things, but “The “Sound of Music” it isn’t. Oh, there are songs that move the plot along. There’s a story with an arc and even a happy ending, but “Hair” is a more traditional musical than “Hedwig” is.
What the production now playing at the Bangor Opera House really is, is a drag show with a plot and a rock ’n’ roll score. There’s a lot of talking and singing about gender identity, sex and Hedwig’s genitalia, but at its heart, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is about accepting and loving yourself.
John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the text, teamed in 1994 with Stephen Trask, who wrote the music and lyrics. The show opened at the Squeezebox, a New York City drag bar, and quickly moved to an off-Broadway theater. It won many awards before Mitchell directed himself in the film version, which was a hit at the 2001 Sundance Festival. Mitchell is expected to revive his role as Hedwig and debut the show on Broadway this fall.
While “Hedwig” may have become part of America’s musical theater canon, it came out of a specific time and place in the nation’s homosexual culture. By the mid-1990s, being HIV-positive wasn’t a death sentence, and being out and proud wasn’t just a slogan but a movement. New York City was the center of the artistic uni-verse rather than the target of terrorists.
Penobscot Theatre Company’s producing artistic director, Scott R.C. Levy, and musical director, Nathan Halvorson, who also is credited with staging the production, crafted a stunning version of this odd little musical that somehow gained cult status. Everything about their “Hedwig” is high quality from the performance by Scoop Slone in the starring role to the four-piece band, to the set, costumes and video, which illustrate the story.
Slone gives an energetic and electrifying performance. The New York-based actor walks a thin line between the campy sarcasm of a drag show and adolescent angst. Slone infuses the character’s self-deprecating humor with an underlying sadness that gives Hedwig more depth than she probably deserves. His physical transformation in the second act is stunning and startling, because Slone is so convincing as a woman.
The band, dubbed The Angry Inch, is made up of local musicians with Chris Viner on drums, Gaylen Smith on bass, Sasha Gioia Alcott on guitar and Chad Arsenault on keyboard and guitar. They rock out like it’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is coming down along with communism.
PTC’s version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is not for everyone, but neither is “The Sound of Music.” People like me, who are older than 50 and have a tendency to take their theater too seriously, should take the following advice to heart before encountering Hedwig, and there’s no doubt about it, the audience encounters rather than watches this production:
• Listen to the songs before the show, if possible, because it’s difficult to understand the lyrics of the hard-rock tunes if you’ve never heard them before.
• Go with someone who grew up on punk and glam rock rather than folk rock.
• Don’t overthink “the message” or try to put the show in the current political context of a repealed same-sex marriage law or which locker room transgender students should use.
• If you can stand to do it, get in touch with your inner 13-year-old and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” will be profound.
IF YOU GO
What: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
Text by John Cameron Mitchell
Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask
Who: Penobscot Theatre Company
Where: Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St.
When: Thursdays-Sundays, April 22-May 2
Info: 942-3333 or www.penobscottheatre.org