Holding court this weekend at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater is a captivating glam-rocker, a fabulous chanteuse who will rock, rage, dish, and tell all — of love, division, unification, and the genital stub that was the cost of her emigration to America. Yes, it’s Hedwig, the “internationally ignored song stylist” of John Cameron Mitchell’s wildly beloved Hedwig and the Angry Inch, onstage in a tight, zinging show by Cast Aside Productions, directed by Celeste! Green and David Surkin.
It stars the phenomenal Michael Jenkins as Hedwig, who grew up “a slip of a girlyboy” in East Berlin, then married a U.S. soldier, moved to Junction City, Kansas, and became the transgender diva rocker now onstage to wile us with her story, her neurotic charisma, and her rock and roll chops. Hedwig takes us into a low-end rock club where Hedwig and her band, The Angry Inch, have an engagement. Mic in hand, she roams the house with quips, shimmies, nuggets of philosophy, and gasoline-stoked torch songs. She tells us of singing into the oven in East Berlin, adoring Bowie, Iggy, and Lou. She tells us of creating rock star Tommy Gnosis, ex nihilo, from a confused teenaged Kansan. She tells of the mythic “third gender” of Plato’s Symposium — at once male and female — whose ranks she has inadvertently joined.
Mitchell originally staged the show in rock clubs, and Cast Aside manages to conjure that intimacy and sordid abandon. Set design nicely scruffs up Portland Ballet’s studio theater and draws us into the action with seats onstage amid mic and wig stands, beer cans, random lamps, and scarf-draped amps — and the show, do take note, is BYOB. A back stage door is situated perfectly for Hedwig to kick it open and wallow in rage and self-pity at the sounds of her now-famous former lover, that same Tommy Gnosis, playing to adoring fans. And the house’s risers and wide center aisle let Hedwig strut up and down among us, sitting on and straddling laps, as well as take nostalgic refuge at the high back of the house, at a table and chair that stand in for her childhood apartment. The projector for the show’s trademark animations (by Surkin) also lives up there, and the positioning allows for some fun shadow play when Hedwig moves into the beam, jetting her Farrah Fawcett silhouette in among flying candies and stop-motion cut-outs of split genders seeking each other.
The success of any Hedwig depends above all on its star, and I’m happy to report that Jenkins, a young performer with magnetism and a supple, powerful voice, kills it in the best way. In a gold lamé jacket, white cut-offs, and a gold sequined halter, with more skin-tight gold glimmering beneath, Jenkins’s Hedwig owns the room. Her eyes, fabulously thick with blue glitter and fake lashes, look out now in a wide ingénue gaze, now with a snarky roll heavenward. One minute she has a campy bubblegum vampiness, tongue in the side of her mouth, and then she’s snapping and pacing with spleen and invective. Jenkins’s delivery is deliciously glib in Hedwig’s myriad innuendos about blow jobs and gaping holes, her sly little asides. (Her husband left her for someone he found “on christianmingle.com — or whatever we called it back then ... church.”)
Physically, Jenkins has a slight, lithe, arrogant frame — think a young Mick Jagger crossed with a mincing ingénue. Every moment, small or dramatic, is something to watch — her mouth slowly working the chewy gummy bear she takes from her husband-to-be; a twirl that sweeps remarkably into a face-plant. You never want to look away from her. And while perhaps physically a little young for a rocker now past her twenties, emotionally Jenkins conjures plenty Weltschmerz and ache to let us believe in all that Hedwig has been through. She also lets us understand the extraordinary forces that have gotten her through it — her own charisma and a love of rock and roll that is redemptive as only a religion can be.
As a singer, Jenkins is virtuoso, and he gives Hedwig an emotional and dynamic range that keeps us both infatuated and on our toes. Listen to her down low at the start of a ballad, with her sweet, sensual phrasing, the casual elisions that make us both loosen and lean in. Then feel the blood surge when she kicks it into rock gear. (The music, loving tributes in the style of Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy, does rock — Rolling Stone in fact called Hedwig the first rock musical to “truly rock.”). And follow Hedwig’s gradual shifts in feeling over the course of “Wig in a Box,” perhaps one of the catchiest pick-yourself-up anthems in the musical canon. She starts it soft and sad, and by the end of the song (and several wigs) she’s soared into a strong, arch self-ownership.
Though Hedwig by nature seizes and hoards the spotlight, her show would of course be nowhere without others. Arrayed upstage, in punk-rock black and surly expressions, is her kick-ass band of ex-pat Serbs, played by Kyle Aarons (who is also musical director), Nathan Galvez, Michael King, and Jonathon Raines. These guys rock the walls of this little ballet theater, and they also do an entertainingly deadpan job of being at once leery, resentful, and begrudgingly respectful of their front woman. Finally, there is the much-abused Yitzhak (Lex Cie), Hedwig’s husband, assistant, and backup singer, and a former Jewish drag queen. Lex Cie carefully measures Yitzhak’s fury and his kicked-dog wariness against his clear concern for what becomes the hot mess of Hedwig. And when he takes the mic, after Hedwig has a meltdown, it’s a treat to watch Yitzhak ease back into the pleasure of performing.
Central to the play’s spirit is just that transformative thrill of making music. Jenkins’s Hedwig convinces us utterly of the euphoria that the music raises in her, and it is infectious. It’s when Hedwig sings that we see into her most. Her pathos, vulnerability, strength, and pure life-force that make her a mesmerizing and gorgeously confounding human being. You’ll be glad you spent a night with her.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch | By John Cameron Mitchell; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Trask. Directed by Celeste! Green and David Surkin. Produced by Cast Aside Productions | Through August 26 | Thu-Sat 8pm | At the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 519 Forest Ave., Portland | $20 |
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