Gender confusion, it turns out, tastes like gummi bears and Stoli.
That's one of several revelations in Steven Eubank's anniversary staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This is a punk-rock valentine of a show that pinches gender in a titty-twister and proves that the words rock musical have shit-all to do with Billy Joel. Instead of the sort of rote boogie-woogie sleaze spawned by Rocky Horror, Hedwig composer Stephen Trask delivers powerful glam and punk numbers that match their '70s inspirations riff for riff and hurt for hurt — songs that not only suggest Iggy and Bowie classics but might be classics themselves. Squeeze the epic "The Origin of Love" onto Diamond Dogs, and it would still be a standout. The white-hot "Angry Inch" burns so ferociously, it could cauterize wounds. Spin it between angry blasts from X or the Damned, and nobody would ever suspect your punk ass owned an original-cast recording.
All of which makes for another revelation: the fact that it's possible to catch a full-on, glam-trash, puke-in-a-bucket miracle of a rock show at Crown fucking Center.
About an hour in comes revelation number three. Set onstage at a Kansas City club, Hedwig is both a slice of life and a one-of-a-kind extravaganza — a long, retrospective concert from an East German tranny who's also a small-town Kansas girl who's also a star collapsed to a near white dwarf. At around the two-thirds point, our Hedwig (Justin Van Pelt, never better) takes a powder, wandering off the stage and leaving the band to amuse itself. That group, called the Angry Inch, is a model U.N. of alterna-styles: rockabilly bass player, skinny-tie drummer, a baby-faced punk on guitar. On backup vocals is Yitzhak, Hedwig's lover, who comes on like a flamethrower; with Hedwig gone, Yitzhak seizes the opportunity for a solo number, which is another in a long string of highlights.
First, though, she detours into the minute-counting opening verse of "Seasons of Love," that ersatz gospel horseshit from Rent. The joke killed on opening night — it was both a point of comparison and a minor rebuke: rock like Hedwig's exists, but theatergoers settle for Rent's easy-listening mawkishness. Hedwig is a mainline, but Rent ain't even a flavor crystal.
Like everything here, Yitzhak is complicated. A man who'd prefer to be a woman, forced by Hedwig never to go drag, Yitzhak is traditionally played by a woman (in this case, the spectacular Vanessa Severo) dragged up as a man. Hedwig herself is a man who hoped to become a woman but found herself, after a disastrous sex-change operation, mangled someplace in between. She is written and often performed as a washed-up, Nico-style chanteuse. Van Pelt, though, bursts with such expressive life and is so sharply sculpted, so holy-shit good at everything he does, that the scandalous between-song monologues making up much of the show seem more like tall tales than a true personal history. How could this young beauty have experienced so much so quickly?
At first, when Hedwig is in clear emotional control, Van Pelt is a soft-spoken dreamer done up like Celine Dion but cutting loose like Ziggy Stardust. Over the course of the evening, he slowly strips, increasingly revealed until he hits full emotional (if not quite physical) nudity. It's a performance you'll have a hard time shaking, one that goes from great and powerful Oz to little man behind the curtain — all while delivering a musical triumph. Van Pelt makes emotional sense even when the details are muddled.
This holds true with other aspects of the show. The band's volume washes out some of the most important lyrics, and Hedwig's climactic catharsis, though powerfully staged and sung, is vague.
What isn't vague are the show's ambitions. Hedwig is more a prickly art piece or concept album than it is Late Night Theatre-style silliness. Yes, Hedwig makes with the costume changes and the blow-job jokes and is up to its bulge suppressors in cross-dressing fabulousness, but its real interest is in a relationship, one based on emotional honesty. It's an evolutionary leap for the Off Broadway drag musical. This production is a leap forward for Eubank, too, who has never staged a show with such clarity and impact — quite a feat, considering that many of the best moments here are those when Van Pelt, in discursive monologues, flits off topic. I'm more convinced than ever that Eubank's talent extends far beyond the silly Debbie Does Dallas-style musicals he relishes. Perhaps a success like this will encourage him to take on challenging material more often.
Eubank and Van Pelt deliver the fun of the camp show but also explore its motivating disaffection: that youthful confusion of gender and identity, that fear of never fitting in, the dreams and nightmares that compel people to get onstage and try to dazzle the rest of us. They dig out what it's like to be a star, even in the hinterlands of Kansas City, all the hurt and pleasure, all the vodka and candy.