‘Hedwig’ sexy, smart but too sugarcoated for its own good

Drag comedy shows generally aren’t my cup of tea. I’m no expert on the subject, but what I’ve seen has been a disappointing mix of over-the-top celebrity impersonation, unforgivably racist humor and campy renditions of pop songs that should never have been recorded in the first place. All that being said, you can imagine my wariness when I took my seat in Mad Myrna’s Feb. 25 to see “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Perseverance Theatre’s rendition of the drag-comedy cult hit created by John Cameron Mitchell and lyricist Steven Trask in the late ‘90s.

Maybe you can also imagine my surprise when, about three musical numbers into the show, I found I was being won over in a big way. A lot of the credit goes to Mitchell for creating a story that capitalizes on all the genre’s strengths and avoids all of its weaknesses.

The background story is of Hansel (who changes his name to Hedwig), a young boy in 1980s East Berlin who falls in love with the glamour of androgynous western pop stars like Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Lou Reed, and who teaches himself to speak English from snippets of pop lyric excerpts. Young Hedwig is so desperate to escape to the west side of the Berlin Wall that he lets himself be seduced by an American GI who offers to marry Hansel and take him to the United States as his wife on the condition that Hansel surgically sacrifice his — ahem — family jewels in order to pass as a woman for the medical inspection. Hansel complies and a year later finds himself living alone in an American trailer park, watching the television as the Berlin Wall comes down. His reaction, “I had to cry to keep from laughing,” is typical of the script’s verbal crackle.

The result is that Hansel becomes Hedwig, a truly fascinating character, biologically sexless but somehow so saturated with sexual energy that he instantly fills the stage, telling his life story in a series of tender torch songs, rock anthems and punk blowouts. Rory Merritt Stitt carries off each genre very well, and tells Hedwig’s story so well that the audience is right there with him at every twist and turn of the plot.

Indeed, Stitt makes Hedwig a little too sympathetic, underplaying the darker aspects of this character who is at once a victim and a tyrant. The second half of the play is largely a story of betrayal in which Hedwig acts as both lover and mentor to Tommy Gnosis, a Justin Timberlake-style boy rocker who rides to the top of the charts on Hedwig’s lyrical genius, but who runs away without a look back after discovering Hedwig’s true sexual identity. Stitt flawlessly evokes the romantic aspect of this story, but fails to make credible its bitter aftermath. The climax of the play is driven by Hedwig’s tyrannical relationship to his fellow performers, especially browbeaten husband Yitzhak (Sara Waisanen). While the cruel asides to Yitzhak were funny, the brutality always seemed a little staged. This was a real shame because it drained some power out of the show’s ending and detracted from what was otherwise a near-flawless rendition of an unforgettable character.

“Hedwig” has already closed in Anchorage, but you can rent the film rendition at any video rental store.