By Richard Ades
I was a little concerned when I learned JJ Parkey was going to play the title role in Short North Stage’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
When Parkey played the Emcee in Cabaret at the same venue last year, he depicted the entertainer as pure evil. Since no one is pure anything, that approach made the iconic character less interesting than he might have been.
Still, Parkey seemed talented, and I consoled myself with the thought that actors don’t always have final say over their performances. Sometimes directors dictate a certain approach in order to support their vision of the work. I have personal experience with this because, way back in my college/community-theater days, a director forced me to play a soft-spoken and intuitive character as a loudmouthed jerk in order to support his misguided interpretation of the play.
Maybe that’s what was going on with Cabaret, I thought. Or maybe not. It’s a moot point, really, because Parkey plays the transgendered Hedwig with all the verve and sensitivity that the role demands. It’s a bravura performance.
In case you’re one of the few people who are encountering John Cameron Mitchell’s cult musical for the first time (Short North’s production is my fourth, counting the 2001 movie), it’s about an East German lad who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery in order to marry his way to American citizenship. Unfortunately, the surgery is botched, leaving the former Hansel with a vestige—an “angry inch,” as it were—of his former genitalia where a brand-new vagina was supposed to be.
We actually meet Hedwig, as she’s now known, when she takes the stage along with her rock band, the Angry Inch. In the course of the concert, we hear her sad story, including her unhappy affair with a now-popular musician who’s simultaneously performing up the street. We also meet Yitzhak (a cross-dressing Ruthie Stephens), a sullen band member who clearly has his own rocky history with Hedwig.
Written with both wit and attitude by Mitchell, the melodrama unfolds in the midst of enjoyable ballads and punk-rock tunes by Stephen Trask. Parkey and the golden-throated Stephens do them all justice, as does the onstage band led by P. Tim Valentine.
Director/choreographer Edward Carignan wraps it all up in a production that knows when to let loose and when to stop and smell the rancor. Carignan likewise designed the wigs and gaudy costumes that help to define the title character, as do the clever video images that appear at opportune moments on two backdrop screens.
Technical director Robert Kuhn and lighting designer Amanda Ackers also deserve mention for their contributions to a show that, along with the recent Passing Strange, bolsters Short North Stage’s reputation as a purveyor of first-rate musical entertainment.
Short North Stage will present Hedwig and the Angry Inch through June 22 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.