Musical theater knows few characters quite as fascinating as Hedwig, who began life as “a slip of a girlyboy living in communist East Berlin,” suffered a botched sex-change operation and a horrific divorce, and now tours the broken-down dives of Middle America singing glam-infused hard rock songs.
Hedwig – once known as Hansel – is the star and constant centerpiece of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an Off Broadway smash in the 1990s. A local production is opening a limited Savannah run Thursday at the Bay Street Theatre, upstairs in the cabaret room at Club One.
Club One, of course, is primarily known as a gay and lesbian nightspot, and its drag-queen cabaret shows are the stuff of local legend.
But Hedwig and the Angry Inch, while it features a transgendered protagonist and some pretty salty dialogue, is a step in a different direction, the first volley in a new dedication to live theater on the club’s part.
“With this being a college town, and the general community that that we have here, it’s a show that appeals to a really broad audience,” says Bridget Tungstall, who’s directing Hedwig on the cabaret stage.
“You don’t have to be gay or straight or anything to take any kind of a message from it, moreso than another person. To me it’s an extremely universal message.”
Tungstall, who’s also the Lucas Theatre’s events coordinator, believes the message in John Cameron Mitchell’s script and Stephen Trask’s lyrics and music is “a search for honesty and a search for acceptance. Whether it’s acceptance from another person, or acceptance of self.
“For so long, Hedwig’s relied on acceptance from another. And the kind of end point of all this is that she finally wakes up and realizes that it’s not another person, she’s got to love who she is inside. Regardless of all the trauma that’s happened to her.”
Hedwig reproduces a live rock show (the Angry Inch is a four-piece band, plus a second vocalist, onstage with the star). Hedwig is frustrated and bitter about her soured personal (and professional) relationship with one Tommy Gnosis, who’s gone on to become the world’s biggest rock star … leaving her in the dust, playing dives while he sings for millions in stadiums.
“She’s always kind of behind Tommy, hoping for some kind of reconciliation,” Tungstall explains. “Some kind of acknowledgement.”
Christopher Blair plays Hedwig as a foul-mouthed fireball in a Teutonic blonde wig, a party dress and sparkly platforms … with hairy legs and heavily tattooed arms.
Blair is a rock singer with the range and the pipes to deliver Trask’s emotional songs, from the funny ones to the deadly serious ones, to the melodramatic ones that sound like long-lost outtakes from the Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf catalog.
And his Hedwig speaks in a voice borrowed from Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein.
“Chris is one of those actors that’s constantly searching for ways to better himself in terms of his craft,” Tungstall reports. “And this is a hard part, because with the exception of maybe 20 lines, the entire show rests completely on him.
“So he’s got to be the rock performer, he’s got to have these moments of scathing vulnerability onstage. He’s got these moments of absolute anger. So he’s riding this completely emotional wave through the entire show. He’s got to hold that all together.”
The band – John Turner on drums, Ryan McCurdy on piano, guitarist Al Gonzalez and bassist Christopher Stanley – gives Hedwig’s songs the emotion-rich one-two punch they need. Valerie America Lavelle plays Yitzhak, Hedwig’s co-singer and onstage comic foil.
“You know when you see these live bands perform, and there’s so much dynamic between the musicians and the singer?” asks Tungstall. “The energy that performers get naturally? To a point, re-creating that feel – without it being false – is difficult.”
She’s extremely proud of her Angry Inch. “I’m nervous but I’m really confident,” she says. “They’ve pulled out the stops and they’ve all been doing individual work. The band is super-talented. Some of them play multiple instruments.”
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is beloved around the world, and was made into an acclaimed film in 2001, and the local production will be slavish to the original in all but one small detail.
“John Cameron Mitchell has allowed casts to adapt it to where the show is playing,” Tungstall says. “The original opening line is ‘Don’t you know me, Kansas City?’ And we’ve changed it to ‘Don’t you know me, Savannah, Georgia?’”
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
Where: Club One, 1 Jefferson St.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 17-19, 25-27