As a cult movie, last year's Hedwig and the Angry Inch made the title character an international icon. Yet it struck me as a frustrated advertisement for the play--robust with the talent and material of the original, yet hoping to art-direct its way onto the screen. I kept waiting for creator-director-star John Cameron Mitchell to begin the story in the present tense, but he stayed married to the cabaret-confessional structure of his off-Broadway rock musical, faithfully letting Hedwig look back on her life as an East Berlin lad who endured a botched sex change in order to escape Communism with an American GI.
Any stage version would be better: The intimacy of letting fictional Hedwig tell her story to a live audience, with a live band, was part of the play's inherent pleasure. Yet Outward Spiral's local production is so much better than the movie, and so much better than you might expect, that it may represent an event in itself. For starters, the company landed a star seemingly born for the role: Less poised and sculpted than Mitchell, who originated Hedwig for the stage, Jason S. Little has an unshowy, big-sisterly sense of comic timing, and a physical vulnerability that makes him somehow more human as the would-be glam queen.
Director Jef Hall-Flavin surrounds his lead with plenty to look at--rear-projected images of the Berlin Wall, the dazzlingly lit glam-punk band the Angry Inch (named for Hedwig's abbreviated phallus). Yet I couldn't take my eyes off Little: He seems truly, unsettlingly naked in the final scenes when Hedwig sheds her defining drag-queen persona and strips down to a diaper-like wrapping. He never lets his control as an actor become the character's self-control. And even the songs feel like natural eruptions.
This Angry Inch is led by Jendeen Forberg, drummer for Twin Cities gender-breakers All the Pretty Horses, and this maestro knows how to pummel quietly enough for the voices to ring out. (Though Ann Michels, playing backup singer Yitzhak, could pierce any racket on earth.) The band also lends punk scuzz to songwriter Stephen Trask's Bowiesque and Beatlesesque sing-alongs, a texture that seems perfectly fitting. Hedwig genuinely embodies the emotional arc of punk's identity transformation--in fact, the story does this better than either Jerungdu's recent Ramones tribute or the touring adaptation of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces. In the end, that angry inch measures the broken Berlin Wall between normals and freaks, men and women, anonymity and stardom--all the divisions Johnny Rotten seemed to breach as he madly tunneled under the Berlin Wall in "Holidays in the Sun." Call it one small stump for man, one giant leap for mankind.