Transgendered Germans and Hair Metal

From now until August 31st, Hedwig and the Angry Inch will be playing at the Jungle Theater. Featuring a cast of local talent, including Jairus Abts as Hedwig and Ann Michels as her husband Yitzhak, the production is most comfortable during the music numbers and flounders some during monologues. Though shrill and sluggish at times, it builds toward an emotionally fulfilling conclusion.

The Obie-winning musical is a 4th-wall breaking fusion of rock songs and monologues featuring the heartbreaking story of Hedwig, an "internationally ignored" rock goddess and victim of a botched sex change operation in East Berlin. Left with an "angry inch," the story chronicles her rise and fall in a thought-provoking search for acceptance and individuality.

For the most part, the show’s worst gaffes are made up for by the great music. Abts plays Hedwig more pathetically washed up than resigned, delivering one-liners often not for comedy, but to underline the character’s disdain for himself and the audience. This "walling-in" of Hedwig is made worse by an ill-executed "German" accent, which careens around the world from Europe to Minnesota. The result makes Hedwig more of a caricature than someone to be identified with. I was hoping for ’80s hair-metal Scorpions, but the result is more Max Mosley and the BDSM porn dungeon, which is to the detriment of the show. Thankfully, the dopey accent is dropped almost entirely during the musical numbers and Abts is noticeably more comfortable. His forceful baritone is able to shine, though his limited range feels a bit constricting at times. Michels also shines during the musical sections, her effortless soprano emphasized by great sound design. Like Abts, Michels is weakest when the music isn’t playing and her monotone portrayal of Yitzhak is, at times, really painful.

Visually, the production is masterful. The light design is clever without overshadowing the performances and builds the intensity of the climax until its breaking point. Near the end, Yitzhak flings a stack of paper at the audience, the harsh strobe light making tangible the simmering, tumultuous anger of the show before its satisfying conclusion. When the lights return, the paper turns out to be bingo cards. Points for attention to detail.

The production isn’t perfect, but by the end you’ll find yourself tapping your foot along with the band and thrusting your arms skyward like the rest of the audience. The silly, 4th-wall-breaking energy is thrilling, and the Jungle is intimate enough to make it work. If you have any interest in the sweet harmony musicals and hair metal can create, this one is well worth your time.