In the press materials for Azuka Theatre's production of
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
, which opened Wednesday at the Latvian Society, the show's star, Dito van Reigersberg, says, "It's a role I've wanted to play for a very long time."
Though most theatergoers know him as a founding member of Philly's Pig Iron Theatre Company, van Reigersberg essentially has been auditioning for Hedwig since he unveiled his David Bowie-loving, unabashedly masculine drag-queen alter ego Martha Graham Cracker, so it will be no surprise to learn the wig is a fine fit.
Since its 1998 premiere, John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's weird little cabaret-confessional rock musical - about a transgendered East German bandleader and the existential fallout from her disastrous sex-change operation - has become a cult classic both live and on film. Under Kevin Glaccum's direction, and with van Reigersberg in his dream role, it is clear the show's "cult" following derives more from its esoteric subject matter than from any so-bad-it's-good condescension.
Hedwig has so much heart it hurts. The gorgeous "Origin of Love" - a song that's been covered by, among others, Rufus Wainwright - explores Aristophanes' speech from Plato's
, positing that human beings were once two creatures in one, split by jealous gods. The theme hangs heavy over Mitchell's dialogue, and though his book occasionally sags, when combined with Trask's surprisingly legit songwriting (rock musicals can sound so embarrassingly ersatz), there is enough wit and want to keep an audience rooting for Hedwig throughout.
Van Reigersberg throws everything he has into the part, and he's got plenty. He can sing like a rock star, croon like a lover, and charm like a grifter. Backing him up as the enigmatic Yitzhak is Kim Carson, who, like her character, is such a strong performer that she could command a crowd headlining her own show - though Hedwig's house band, the Angry Inch (named after Hedwig's sad explanation to a lover: "It's what I have to work with"), does both singers proud.
Choreographer Karen Getz, who just finished basking in the success of 1812 Productions'
Suburban Love Songs
, works more magic for Azuka, delivering her signature actors-a-go-go style and elevating the production's energy.
The Latvian Society's spare interior is the perfect counterpoint to Hedwig's contradictions, and Dirk Durossette's gritty set combined with Jorge Cousineau's and Steve Organ's videos takes some of the pressure off van Reigersberg, allowing atmospherics to contribute to the show's tone. Not that he couldn't handle it himself; after all, he's been preparing for this particular close-up for a very long time.
Through May 11 at the Latvian Society, 531 N. Seventh St. Tickets: $15-$27. Information: 215-733-0255 or