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Just an inch shy of original `Hedwig'

THEATER REVIEW

March 28, 2006|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Roxy Theatre burns like a supernova. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's 1998 cult hit receives a crowd-pleasing revival starring Donovan Leitch as the title East German transsexual in search of his/her self.

An Obie winner in its original production starring Mitchell (who repeated his definitive performance in the 2001 film), "Hedwig" is a singular experience. Drawing equally from glitter rock, the fall of communism and Plato's Symposium, "Hedwig" unfolds as a cathartic concert appearance by the "internationally ignored song stylist" at its feverish center.

The Angry Inch of the title partly refers to Hedwig's band, a motley crew with a drum set covered in cobwebs. An iconic wig hangs on a pole upstage, like a guillotined head from the French Revolution. The star arrives in an immense Farrah hairdo and even bigger wings (designed by Ann Closs-Farley, expert as usual). Hedwig then tears into "Tear Me Down," the opening number, and hysteria erupts.

It seldom lets down thereafter. Aided by Dan Brown's slide designs, we learn of the former Hansel Schmidt's childhood behind the Berlin Wall, of his penchant for American pop chanteuses and of Luther, the American GI who demanded the botched sex change that has left Hedwig caught between genders. In this, the singer is not unlike Yitzak (Bijou Phillips), Hedwig's immigration-wary current husband, as broodingly angry as Hedwig is vulnerable beneath the sardonic bonhomie.

Throughout, a doorway emits the sounds (courtesy of John Zalewski) of a stadium crowd screaming for Tommy Gnosis, the treacherous soul mate who reached superstardom on Hedwig's broad shoulders.

Leitch does a tour de force turn. His reedy, explosive vocals articulate more lyrics than we associate with this material, and he hurls himself into Ken Roht's choreography with raw assurance. The accent is sometimes more mid-Atlantic than East German, and some nuances remain to be located, but Leitch's commitment is unquestionable.

Those unable to forget Miriam Shor's indelible original Yitzak may question Phillips, who suggests a cross between Natalie Portman and Steve Buscemi. Still, though she needs more stubble and baritone, her energies are on the money. And the band -- Bryan Head (drums), Nigel Mogg (bass), Noah Lebenzon (guitar) and Lem Jay Ignacio (keyboards) -- is first-rate, conveying the range of Trask's wonderful score with propulsion and point.

Director Joe Witt follows the original staging without allowing it to go stale, reaching a stunning climax of Hedwig-as-Tommy in a sea of dry ice. Here, as elsewhere, Bolle Gregmar's lighting has exceptional vitality, and the audience is enraptured. Perhaps the most apt property the venue has hosted since "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" more than three decades ago, this "Hedwig" isn't the most audacious staging seen in Los Angeles (that would still be the Celebration Theatre's 2004 deconstruction), but it certainly rocks.

The wig is back. Long live the wig.

*

`Hedwig and the Angry Inch'

Where: Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood

When: 9 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays (doors open at 8). Also April 13 and 14. Dark some nights; call for schedule

Ends: April 19

Price: $30 to $35, plus two-drink minimum

Contact: (310) 278-9457 or www.ticketmaster.com

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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