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Review: Revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch Closes Short North Stage Season

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Review: Revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch Closes Short North Stage SeasonLeft to right: Drummer Joe Spurlock accompanies JJ Parkey as the genderqueer East German rocker Hedwig in the Short North Stage production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Photos by Jodi Miller.
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Drag and rock-and-roll both — among other duties — provide a tough, velvet chrysalis for a dark past to transform into something beautiful and defiant.

One of the finest examples of the glory and transformative power of those art forms in a theatre is John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask’s (music and lyrics) cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Short North Stage closes their 2018-2019 season with a crowd-pleasing revival of their production, directed and choreographed by Edward Carignan.

Using the modes of both song cycle and cabaret, Hedwig (JJ Parkey) recounts her journey from East Germany-born isolated child Hansel through his transformation into the seething, electrifying rock star before us. The journey includes the neither-here-nor-there sex change operation that left our heroine with the angry inch of the title (also the namesake of her band) and her relationship with her long-suffering manager and husband Yitzhak (Amy Lynn Zanetto).

There are elements of the material that haven’t aged well since its 1998 premiere; it’s hard to stay shocking in a fast-moving age. What feels like an extended amount of vamping opens the show and exacerbates those dated qualities. Topical and localized references are common to productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch but here we’re bombarded with so many versions of “Hello Columbus” it’s like a ‘70s classic rock revue.

This lengthens the proceedings — at two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission, it’s the longest production I’ve heard of — but it also blunts the piece’s sexy, stiletto sharpness. Worse, it delays getting to those gorgeous songs which hold up very well and which let Parkey’s rich, textured voice shine, buoyed and shaded by Zanetto’s glittering harmonies.

Left to right: Hedwig pauses singing to hear Amy Zanetto, as Yitzhak, belt out a song.

The tight-and-loose-in-exactly-right-ways band — Bruno Bush on bass, Joe Spurlock on drums, Dave Buker on guitar, and music director Samuel Clein on keys — fuels the beautiful pandemonium through moods that shift from the Bakersfield-inflected double entendre glam of “Sugar Daddy” to the soaring ballads of “Wig in a Box” and the unhinged wildness of “Angry Inch” and “Exquisite Corpse.” Even better, the band does all this without betraying the characters of long-suffering, deadpan musicians, tolerating their boss; Spurlock’s rimshots are a particular delight.

Parkey tears into these songs, leveraging the years he’s lived with the character but still finding new freshness. His Hedwig can break every heart in the house on the ballads and slit throats with a smile. Zanetto doesn’t have as much to do, but she makes the most of every ounce of the straight man character Yitzhak.

Hedwig, left, belts a song with Amy Zanetto as Yitzhak.

While some liberties subdue and stretch the material, one audacious gamble pays off big. After Parkey’s virtuosic take on Hedwig’s punk-fired breakdown “Exquisite Corpse,” Carignan and his cast expand the emotional heft of the closing numbers, “Wicked Little Town (Reprise)” and “Midnight Radio,” to make room for forgiveness. Without altering a word, the play ends with a more magnanimous character and with Yitzhak elevated to a person and a valued partner. It’s a touching left turn without sacrificing the show’s toughness.

It takes longer to get there than it should but you can’t go wrong with some of the finest rock songs for the theatre sung this well.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs through June 29 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/679.

Hedwig listens to her soulmate sing on the radio.
Hedwig hits the ground singing.
Hedwig sings a song with Yitzhak.
Hedwig looking for a “sugar daddy.”
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