All Classical Radio James Depreist

Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

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Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

As she likes to say, “Long story short…”

That line is among lots of double-entendres and other micro-jokes that keep the laughs flowing but more importantly poke peepholes into Hedwig’s psyche, with its strange brew of sarcasm, sex, and self-deprecation. “So many people have touched me on my way to the stage,” she deadpans at one point. Elsewhere, she makes an offhand, cheeky reference to “a late-night engagement in the meatpacking district.”

Johannes is deft with the alternately snarky and flirtatious tone of the humor, as well as the flashes of bitterness and vulnerability that sneak out from beneath Hedwig’s flashier-than-thou persona.

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While watching the show, I felt that Johannes wasn’t quite getting the sexual ambiguity in the character, particularly in terms of movement; that the portrayal lacked a certain richness, that it was only partially androgynated, so to speak.

But I’ve thought better of that assessment. Part of the point of Hedwig, after all, is that a place between two poles still is somewhere; it’s about particularity not ambiguity, about individuality not type. Hedwig’s longing for connection and wholeness, what really makes the show so affecting, depends on self-acceptance and self-actualization, as well as a willingness to accept others.  That theme plays out in part in the relationship between Hedwig and husband/bandmate Yitzhak (Kelsey Bentz, who brings vocal chops to burn) and is movingly resolved in the show-closing anthem “Midnight Radio,” a celebration of survival and unity that pays unambiguous homage to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust finale “Rock and Roll Suicide,” replacing Bowie’s cry of “Give me your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful!” with an even more exultant “Lift up your hands!!”

Directed by Triangle’s Don Horn by and co-directed by Corey Brunish, the show feels lean and direct. A few updated topical references to attorney general Jeff Sessions, the dating website ChristianMingle.com and so forth are jarring, suggesting a rather old Hedwig if, as we’re told, she’s moved from East Germany as a teenager in 1988.

But you’re unlikely to concern yourself with such minor matters when the bored-looking but ferocious-sounding band — led by guitarist Dave Cole and powered by the crisp drumming of Alexandra Geffel — kicks into gear, Hedwig dons her Farrah Fawcett wig, swings her fur-lined stars-and-stripes cape and belts out another long story short.

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Triangle Productions’ Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through June 30. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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