When Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened in New York 17 years ago, it was a sensation—and a curiosity. A (mostly) one (mostly) woman musical about an East German refugee with a botched sex-change operation and a lust for rock stardom doesn’t seem like the kind of play that would have such fabulous legs. Yet Hedwig has been performed in Berlin and Bangkok, San Francisco and Springfield and, now, in Las Vegas.
The plot concerns “internationally ignored song stylist” Hedwig, who was born Hansel in East Berlin before the fall of the wall. In order to marry an American soldier, Hansel transforms into Hedwig, but is left with neither penis nor vagina—just an “angry inch” of flesh. Tricked out in a pseudo-Farrah wig, blue eyeshadow, and hot pants, Hedwig now slogs through dive bars, accompanied by her “husband” Yitzhak and an apathetic band. Even worse, Hedwig’s former lover and collaborator Tommy Gnosis is playing a sold-out gig at the Thomas & Mack—with her songs.
Essentially a monologue interrupted by rock tunes, the play requires a Hedwig who shines through her tarnished spangles and sweated-off glitter. Cory Benway lights up the stage with a multifaceted performance: Domineering and needy, glamorous and sordid, imperious and terrified, his Hedwig grabs the audience’s attention as soon as she struts into the room and holds it for 90 minutes. Benway played Hedwig in a 2010 Insurgo Theater production, but his performance doesn’t feel like a rehash—not least because of the audience interaction and Vegas in-jokes (“Call Glen Lerner!”), as well as plenty of ad-libbing.
For Hedwig, the Onyx Theatre is transformed into a basement rock club with graffiti-ed walls and peeling band stickers. The creative lighting by ALIOS combines fluorescents, strobes and tiny lights to evoke everything from a European disco to an American flag to lightning bolts flung by an angry god. Solid performances come from Jamie Riviere as Yitzhak, who is mute except when unleashing her powerful voice, as well as the onstage band, who give a strong garage-rock kick to songs such as “Wicked Little Town” and “Wig in a Box.” Some of the vocals are occasionally distorted in the sound mix, but Benway manages to act every emotion clearly enough that it doesn’t matter if we can’t discern a few of the words.
A story about rock ‘n’ roll, refugees and gender ambiguity may not seem like something for everyone. But Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s message about finding yourself and being true to that self has spoken to millions over the years. Thanks to Benway and company, it comes across loud and clear in Vegas as well.
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
Through Aug. 30, 953 E. Sahara Ave. Suite 16B (in Commercial Center), 702-732-7225, $25-28, OnyxTheatre.com.