Ungainly Bedfellows

Photo by Deidre SchooUngainly bedfellows at best, rock & roll and musical theater have bumped uglies scores of times since the late '60s. The results have been sketchy.

That's only natural, since blending a sophisticated bourgeois medium like theater, which for the most part reinforces middle-class values by either championing or ridiculing them, with the idiom of rock & roll, which in its rawest form is a genuine, if adolescently infused, rebellion against those values, shouldn't be the easiest of fits. Though both are byproducts of pop culture, one always starts within five minutes of 8 p.m., while the other begins whenever the headliners are goddamn good and ready. An enormous gap separates the two, and that's why most rock musicals seem terribly pretentious, the product of a bunch of neurotic self-loathing theater dorks desperately trying to validate themselves by proving they can rock.

That's why HedwigandtheAngryInchis such an anomaly. This is a play cerebral and sharp enough to pass as legitimate theater; goofy and gay enough to pass as musical theater; brash, sexy and attitudinal enough to pass off as rock. It's a cult fave that deserves any and all props.

So give massive kudos to Shannon C.M. Flynn and the Hunger Artists Theatre Company for being the first OC theater to stage Hedwig. Flynn knows precisely why this play works—it's a cabaret show that, much like the troupe's kick-ass production of the Gog/MagogProjectlast year, rattles the theatrical cage by assaulting the audience's conceptions of what theater is supposed to be. Rather than utilizing concept and spoken words, Hedwiguses a pastiche of contemporary pop music—traces of everything from Mott the Hoople and Meat Loaf to Abba and Marc Bolan echo in the score—and a fascinatingly rendered cross-dressing transgendered rock burnout-cum-survivor named Hedwig to drive home its postmodern mantra of identity through duality.

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The flaw in this production is Scott Westra, who plays Hedwig. Though he has the acting chops to pull off the drama and the singing chops to pull off the performance, he rarely brings the two together. Hedwig demands an arrogant diva-like swagger in order to work, yet Westra too often seems tentative and timid. Instead of Mick Jagger, we get late-model Brian Jones.

It's too bad, because just about everything else in this production clicks, particularly Hedwig's fiercely talented backup singer/husband/wife/emotional dumpster Yitzhak (Terri Mowrey) and a band that sounds, even if it doesn't particularly look, the part. But most rock bands live and die based on how engrossing their front person is. A questionable Hedwig undermines any Hedwig, so here's hoping that as this production grows legs this Hedwig realizes the show is his.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Hunger Artists Theater Co., 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sun., 8 P.M. Also Mon., July 11, 8 P.M. Through July 24. $18-$20.

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