Out-of-towner Mark Salyer has some big wigs to fill as the lead in the Actor's Express production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask created the title character as an early 1990s drag act -- one that evolved into the toast of off-Broadway and an indie-film starlet. As the stage play's originator and the film's star and director, Mitchell, it would seem, owns Hedwig in perpetuity. And with Mitchell setting the standard, Salyer has a task akin to an Elvis impersonator -- only with lipstick and feather stoles.
During Hedwig's opening number, "Tear Me Down," Salyer sounds so much like Mitchell that he seems to be doing an imitation. But Salyer measures up to Inch with his dynamic stage presence, wry humor and soulful crooning. It's a relief that the Express found the right Hedwig, because the stage version is very much about the performer, while the film more richly suggests the character's journey.
Hedwig is a transsexual German rocker fronting a band called the Angry Inch. She recounts her life story between songs and raunchy one-liners like, "I do so love a warm hand on my opening." The scandalous, hard-living lounge singer combines elements of David Bowie's glam Ziggy Stardust phase, Courtney Love pre-Versace and maybe a little of the Velvet Underground's Nico from her drug-addled solo tours.
She -- and I use the pronoun advisedly -- claims to have written the hits of teen idol Tommy Gnosis, who's playing to a packed Philips Arena while Hedwig serenades barflies at a country-western hole-in-the-wall called Dwayne's Range. The play makes a running joke of Hedwig opening the bar's back door and hearing Tommy's amplified voice. "Tommy, can you hear me?" she calls out in one of the show's many rock references.
In a combination of monologue and musical, Hedwig explains how she, an East German boy named Hansel, became a celebrity stalker of uncertain gender. The country ballad "Sugar Daddy" pays homage to Luther, the U.S. serviceman who offered to wed Hansel and whisk him to the States -- if he gets a sex change operation. The thrashing rave-up "Angry Inch" describes how the botched surgery left him/her with a "one-inch mound of flesh." And "Wig in a Box" takes the cliche of the transformative power of drag and makes a universal statement about personal reinvention. Unlike most rock-influenced musicals, Trask's songs have catchy hooks and witty rhymes that make them stand on their own.
The play could show the other people in Hedwig's life, but Salyer speaks for them, marvelously drawing out Luther's low, lusty voice and Tommy's nervous naivete as a Midwestern army brat. Still, the material feels narrow without seeing the other characters in the flesh.
Hedwig's main on-stage relationship is with her current lover, a man named Yitzhak, who, in a further tweak of sex roles, is cast by a woman. Angela Motter shows off pumped-up biceps conspicuously bigger than Salyer's, but she only gets a few words of dialogue, making her mostly a physical presence. Motter's best moment comes after she locks Hedwig outside the bar, then trudges back to the door, like a kid dreading a punishment, to let the singer back in.
The play's emotional weight rests on Salyer's shoulders -- and he carries it with ease. He's best in poignant moments, conveying the pain of romantic separation in "The Origin of Love," or when he vulnerably says of Hedwig's ruined sexuality, "It's what I have to work with." Though not a graceful dancer, Salyer demonstrates a punk's passion for pogo-ing and Mick Jagger moves in the faster songs. And he struts across the bar for "Sugar Daddy."
Speaking of which, Actor's Express itself dons drag for the show, with Kat Conley's set dude-ing up the theater's interior as a perfect replica of a country-western bar, down to the black velvet Elvis painting. The production includes continuous bar service, which proves a double-edge cocktail sword. Though it has the vibe of authenticity, it leads to such distractions as audience members taking bathroom breaks and the sound of bottle caps bouncing off the floor.
Director Randee Trabitz provides inconsistent stage effects. A video projector throws a haunting video image on a sheet draped over Hedwig's arms for "Dirty Little Town." But "The Origin of Love's" shadow puppets, rendered on a high school-style overheard projector, look pretty crappy.
The play has fun with rock gestures, especially when Hedwig emerges in a jacket festooned with 45s. Comprised of Marc Cram, Andrew Davis, Chad Yarborough, Jim Johnson and Katy Carkuff (as the waitress/groupie/keyboard player), the Angry Inch's musicianship could be tighter, but the band crunches and wails with conviction.
With Hedwig, Mitchell and Trask hit upon a character with unexpected dimensions. Hedwig embodies a variety of roles: abandoned woman, abused muse, celebrity stalker, showbiz bottom feeder, post-communist immigrant, gender pioneer, high priestess of rock 'n' roll. She even compares herself to the Berlin Wall in "Tear Me Down" -- and the Actor's Express show proves that symbols stick to her like glorious graffiti.