- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

Think you couldn't have anything in common with a drag queen with a spectacularly unsuccessful sex-change operation? Think again.

Once one gets beyond the blond wigs and glitter makeup, the punk posturing and the platform boots, "Hedwig & the Angry Inch" is a story about love finding it, losing it, demanding it.

This is not your typical Signature Theatre musical. Melody and fluid orchestrations have been replaced by a kickin' rock band (Michael Kozemchak, Steve McWilliams, Matthew Midgette, Stephen Gregory Lee Smith, Starz Vander Lockett) and a starring role that is more "La Cage Aux Folles" than "The Lion King," in this production overseen by Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.

Hedwig (Rick Hammerly) is a struggling chanteuse whose talent was purloined by his/her ex-lover and collaborator, Johnny Gnosis. The conceit of the show has Gnosis, a huge rock star, playing their songs at RFK Stadium, while Hedwig and the band, the Angry Inch, are relegated to the shadows, here, a ratty club in Shirlington.

Hedwig has lived a life that would negate Patti Smith's right to sing the punk rock blues. The only child of a diffident East Berlin mother, Hedwig grew up listening to Armed Forces Radio with his head in the oven (the only place he could get privacy in a cramped Soviet apartment).

An American soldier notices his feminine beauty, and for the first time, Hedwig experiences love (set to the tune "Sugar Daddy"). They decide to get Hedwig out of communist East Germany, but first, as his mother points out, to go forward you must leave something behind. Hedwig agrees to a sex-change operation, which is botched, leaving him with only an "angry inch" of genitalia.

Abandoned by his lover and living in a trailer park in Kansas, Hedwig is destitute and alone. He/she forms a rock band, the Angry Inch, and hopes to become a superstar all the while searching for the person who completes him, his other half. Hedwig may have found it in Johnny Gnosis, or perhaps with his disgruntled lover and back-up singer, Yitzak (Lynn Filusch). Who knows? Hedwig just keeps trying.

Accompanied by cheekily primitive drawings projected on the back wall, the show depicts the mostly downs of Hedwig's life, as set to a raw, roistering rock beat. Hedwig's life may not be the cheeriest, but the show is anything but a bummer. Hedwig, sporting more makeup and gewgaws than RuPaul on a good day, possesses a flinty and fun survivor's sense of humor. He knows how to turn tragedy into comic fodder, yet never loses the essential poignancy and universality of his trials and errors.

Because of the drag-queen aspect of the show, you might think "Hedwig" is an evening of camp. Although there are elements of drag the waggish, knowing humor; the sexual double-entendres; the shock value; the diva behavior (she sips Pabst Blue Ribbon through a straw) "Hedwig" has more genuine emotions than the outrageousness of camp. Mr. Hammerly is tremendous as Hedwig. He emerges first as a drama queen and as entertaining as all get-out, until he begins to reveal sides of himself as he strips off his costumes and gets to the real Hedwig, who turns out to be complete, after all.

Mr. Hammerly has an authentic rock voice, and he handles the androgyny of Hedwig's character with style and flash. He is backed up ably by the Angry Inch band, which performs the rocking score that encompasses heavy metal, punk, country-rock, ballads and the occasional torch song.

As Signature's superb production of "Sideshow" proved a few seasons back, we have a lot to learn from those whom society deems "freaks." "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" brashly and winningly reinforces this message.


****

WHAT: "Hedwig & the Angry Inch" by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

TICKETS: $28 and $30

PHONE: 800/218-6500 or 703/218-6500

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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