March 14, 2008

Hedwig, an ‘Off Center’ reprise of inspiration
by David Ollington

Take the escalator to the third floor of Crown Center. Go to what used to be the movie theater. Walk past the still-festively colored concession stand, once fragrant with popcorn, now offering a laconic selection of beer and wine. Brandish your ticket, retrieve a program from an usher, find your designated seat, and there, in the New Off Center Theatre, take in the expertly manifested performance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Justin Van Pelt as Hedwig. (photo by Matthew Collins)

Hallmark and Crown Center approached several local theatrical groups about using this new, remodeled theatre space. A variety of ensembles have booked the new space this coming season. They hope to eventually supplement the live theatre events with art films.

The space provides a surprisingly agreeable atmosphere for theatre. The movie-theatre seats, complete with cup holders on the arm rests, surround the playing area on three sides, a thrust space similar to the American Heartland Theatre’s, upstairs in the same mall. Meticulous thought was put into sight lines, acoustics and lighting capabilities. The New Off Center Theatre could prove valuable to the theatrical community.

Eubank Productions has remounted Hedwig in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the show's creation. Three years ago, they produced it at the Just Off Broadway Theatre. Steven Eubank directed both productions, and Justin Michael Van Pelt reprises his turn in the title role. The current production includes sensitive lighting, demonstrative and raucous rock music, an enthusiastic supporting cast and quality elements all around. But the talents of Eubank and Van Pelt bring the event to a level of genius.

Writer John Cameron Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask created a monologue with music, a concert with intermittent, expository, solo verbiage.

Hedwig began life as a young man in East Berlin, Hansel — “a slip of a girly boy” — before the wall fell. His affection for an American military man, Tommy, caused him to leave Germany and endure a sex-change operation. The event explores the theme of transformation. The doctor performing the procedure screwed it up. “The Angry Inch” refers to both the remnant genitalia of the botched gender transformation and the name of Hedwig’s band.

Director Eubank, in addition to giving Van Pelt room to improvise, grasped the opportunity to insert references to their location. “Here at the beautiful Off-Center Theatre, boys, we’re doing this show in a mall!” exclaims Hedwig. The star character takes a break from the stage (she gets an intermission but we don’t), and returns with bags from Crown Center shops. Eubank threw into the mix a reference to the Kansas City law firm, Ruben, Case, Hager, Cambiano and Bryant.

At Liberty Memorial, Hedwig’s estranged lover plays a competing concert at the same time Hedwig sings for us. This marks the one element that played more hauntingly real at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in 2005.

Van Pelt three years ago opened the back door of the Just Off Broadway Theatre; we saw the brush and limestone directly outside and listened to the sound of the concert, allegedly from Liberty Memorial, which in 2005 lay just up the hill. The back door of the theatre at Crown Center shows more Crown Center, though Sound Designer Jeff Eubank and Lighting Designer Alex Perry created a crafty moment for the opening of the door.

The technical elements finish off a work of remarkable talent. Perry lights the show with subtle sensitivity. (While watching, I wrote, “Good God, who lit this?”) Diana Prince costumed the actors with hard edges. Andy Chambers chiseled Van Pelt’s features with make-up, and worked up a wig, enigmatic in its blend of gaudiness and feathering, matching the dichotomy of tenderness and rage inherent in Hedwig’s psyche.

Without a musical director credited, Eubanks must have taken on that task. The band plays with expressive synchronicity. Each member of the instrumental combo has responsibility to also play a character interacting with Hedwig and each other. At times understanding the lyrics proves challenging, but that fits with the snarling edge of the rock music aesthetic. The program does not credit a choreographer and none is needed. Van Pelt, though, moves consciously and passionately.

The actor/singer shows diligent growth in his repeat turn as Hedwig. In 2005, he managed to bring a tender elegance to this raucous role. Now, Van Pelt has found a grittier edge to make his portrait of Hedwig more faceted. He sings so well it’s hard to believe the statement in his bio, “Other credits include…more than one failed attempt at American Idol.”

Less featured but essential is Vanessa Severo as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “Man Friday through Thursday.” Severo demonstrates an appropriately lurking presence. She manifests one of the most powerful moments in the show.

The seats provide comfortable back support. Their arrangement makes the stage viewable. The work onstage inspires.

Eubanks Productions Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs until March 22 at the New Off Center Theatre in Crown Center, 3rd level, 2450 Grand Blvd. For tickets and information, call 816-842-9999 or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at


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