Centerpiece: Gender bender

The edgy musical 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' premieres tonight at the Galley on Fifth Avenue South

Friday, June 14, 2002

By NANCY STETSON, nrstetson@naplesnews.com

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has been described as a musical for the new millennium.

One thing's for sure: It isn't cute and fluffy like "Cats" or sweetly sentimental like "Annie."

It's an edgy musical that's as sharp as a surgeon's knife or a drag queen's tongue.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a musical about a young man who undergoes a sex-change operation in order to gain freedom from communist Germany. But the surgery goes awry, leaving Hedwig with an "angry inch."

A year after marrying her American G.I., the Berlin Wall falls; if Hedwig had waited a year, the operation would've been unnecessary. And Hedwig, living in a trailer park in Junction City, Kan., is soon abandoned by her G.I. husband.

The musical previews at The Galley (300 Fifth Ave. S.) today and Saturday at 11 p.m., then moves to the Black Angus Grille (4221 Tamiami Trail E.) for a month.

"It hasn't been done here before," says Jonee Dee, co-producer, director and musical director for the production. "Regarding Southwest Florida, this is the premiere. For a community that's very conservative by nature, they're still sophisticated enough to appreciate edgier pieces. This is about as edgy as you can get.

"We decided to put this on based on the response received by 'Rocky Horror' a couple of years ago at the Naples Dinner Theatre. God bless the NDT for taking a risk and taking a chance to do it. It was a wonderful run," says Dee, who was the musical director for the dinner theater's show. "We had such a diverse crowd gay, straight, young, old. A lot of repeat business. We thought this would be the perfect area (to put on 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'). It's never been done here professionally. There was a college production in Gainesville, but a professional commercial production has never been done in Florida, to the best of my knowledge."

Dee feels the show will finds its audience.

"Just the subject matter alone is edgy enough, but when 'Rocky Horror' first came out, it was taboo," Dee says. "Given time, this will be just as mainstream as 'Rocky Horror' is right now. Because the show does have such an alternative following, we decided to put it in front of a predominantly gay audience to see what would work and what wouldn't. And basically to get the word out in the gay community (initially). But, since the show does have fans and audience appeal to those who are younger the teen set are fans as well we wanted to perform it in a place for a regular run where all ages can see it."

Dee calls it "confessional rock 'n' roll cabaret" and says, emphatically, "it's not porno. It's so far from it. It is adult, but we don't have any four-letter words in the show."

But there are plenty of double entendres, such as Hedwig's response to applause: "I do so love a warm hand on my entrance." And then there's her line: "When it comes to huge openings, a lot of people always think of me."

Dee says that "the music is not dissimilar to musicals like 'Rocky Horror' and 'Grease.' There's just good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll. There's nothing musically that would turn people off unless you don't like rock 'n' roll."

The music is heavily influenced by the glam rock of the '80s. And, according to Dee, the plot is loosely based on Plato's "Symposium."

"If you took a Greek myth and replaced the gods with transsexuals, abusive mothers and American G.I.s, you'd come up with 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' backed by a rock band," Dee says.

The musical won a Grammy for Best Original Cast Album for the stage production, and Stephen Trask won a Grammy for Best Score. Director/writer John Cameron Mitchell, who was the first stage Hedwig, was nominated for several Drama Desk Awards. The movie version of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" came out in July 2001. Mitchell reprised the role for the movie; he received awards for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Picture at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was nominated for several Golden Globe Awards.

Dee is proud to be putting on the show, explaining, "the rights are very hard to come by." They obtained the rights from Mitchell's attorney, through the wig designer who worked on the New York and Toronto productions.

"The wig designer Wanda MacRae is a very dear friend of John's," Dee says. "She was a bridge for us. She designed and built our wigs, which were flown in from Toronto."

Much of the humor in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" stems from gender-bending.

Lori Nuti, a woman, plays Yitzak, a man, and Dean Swann, a man, plays Hedwig, a man who becomes a woman.

"I think it's a challenge, a growing experience for me," Nuti says, reasoning: "If I can do this kind of role, I can do anything."

Nuti says the role is quite a stretch for her because she's more used to classical music and singing opera. She studied for the role by going into bars and observing the young men how they sat, talked, acted. Then she'd go home and try to imitate the look, watching herself in the mirror. "I slouch a lot," she says. "My character has bad posture."

The makeup, which includes facial hair, aids in getting into the role. Stuffing a roll of socks into her jeans also helps.

Nuti says it takes her an hour to get into makeup, and slightly less time to get out of it.

Swann's transformation takes longer approximately 2-and-a-half hours.

"I've gotten it down to two hours," he says. "The false eyelashes are the worst."

He's not too wild about the corset he has to wear either. When he first squeezed into it, he found it difficult to sing, jump around on stage and breathe at the same time.


"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
When: 11 p.m. today and Saturday, June 15
Where: The Galley, 300 Fifth Ave. S.
Cost: $15
Information: 285-6038


Every Thursday through Saturday @ 9PM and every Friday and Saturday @ MIDNIGHT!!!!

Swann went to the Chanel counter at Dillard's at Coastland Center mall to learn how to put on his makeup. "Clayton Brown spent four hours putting on my makeup and showing me how to do it," Swann says. "It was a great show for the people who gathered around. Other people would walk by and grab their kids' hands and walk by very quickly.

"This is where musical theater is going," Swann says. "It's different. It's exciting. It's music I can relate to."

When he saw the show in New York City, "I had no idea what I was getting into. I had an incredible moment. It was a sonic and emotional journey. I will never forget it.

"It's an allegory, absolutely. I see Hedwig as a tragic figure. It's about the origins of love, or trying to find your other half."

"I think people who come to see the show will sit there with their jaws dropped to the floor," Dee says. "By the end they will leave recognizing a bit of Hedwig in themselves. It doesn't outright preach tolerance for other kinds of lifestyles, but it does stress the humanity in Hedwig. Humanity and love are genderless."



Friday June 14th

Dinner theater ventures out there with 'Hedwig'


It may not be the fictional Bilgewater restaurant chain, but "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is taking over nonetheless.

The restaurant is actually The Black Angus Grille in Naples, where John Cameron Mitchell's edgy glam-rock musical will make its professional premiere in Florida Thursday night, June 20.

Jonee Dee of New York City is co-producer, director, musical director and keyboardist in the show.

She was also musical director for "The Rocky Horror Show" at the Naples Dinner Theatre two years ago. That theater is bringing "Rocky Horror" back Saturday, June 29 through Saturday, Aug. 17.

"God bless the Naples Dinner Theatre for taking that risk," Dee said. "It opened the door for us. I think the audiences down here are sophisticated and can appreciate a show of this ilk."

Michael Wainstein, Naples Dinner Theatre's artistic director, said because "Rocky Horror" is a tradition among baby boomers, theaters can more easily get away with producing it. More often though, he said, theaters choose shows with commercial appeal to pay the bills.

"Cutting-edge theater in cutting-edge venues is no problem," he said. "But cutting-edge in the Naples Dinner Theatre --our normal in-season Saturday night audience wouldn't like it, but they wouldn't come. We have more younger, working-class people coming in and staying year-round, so we have a bigger audience for this kind of thing."

Despite that, Wainstein said he wouldn't add many more controversial productions because he doesn't have an extra theater space.

The Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers is also squeezing edgier shows into its lineup. General Manager Mary Bensel said she is negotiating to bring "The Vagina Monologues" next season. She said the show is about women telling powerful, thought-provoking stories.

"You have to have a little more edgy show to get the younger audience into the theater," Bensel said. "If they see ‘Rent,' maybe next time they're going to see the ‘Oklahoma' revival. I do think this audience has grown up as we've grown out and expanded the horizons of people."

The audience's reaction to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" will determine how long it stays at The Black Angus Grille. The show is scheduled for a month with the option to add more dates.


WHAT: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" gala preview

WHEN: 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 14, 15

WHERE: The Galley, 509 3rd St. South, Naples

COST: $20 general admission (21 and older)

WHAT: "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

WHEN: Thursdays at 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 9 p.m. and midnight, starting Thursday, June 20

WHERE: The Black Angus Grille, 4221 Tamiami Trail East, Naples

COST: $20 general admission (all ages)

INFORMATION: Call (941) 285-6038 or visit hedwigflorida.tripod.com.

Dee said she picked the restaurant for its low-key atmosphere. Unlike the movie version of "Hedwig," though, this stage show won't surprise unwitting diners. It's being performed well after the dinner rush.

"If you've seen the movie, it's about Hedwig's national tour of Bilgewater," she said. "This is our Bilgewater. You want people playing darts and glasses clinking. There's no fourth wall. The audience is a character."

She said the script allows Hedwig to improvise and feed off audience reactions.

Dean Swann, of New York City, plays the quick-witted transsexual Hedwig, who shadows the tour of ex-lover and pop star Tommy Gnosis.

"(Swann) is a phenomenal rock and roll singer, and his stage presence is bigger than God," Dee said. "And he looks good in a dress."

Hedwig's backup band, The Angry Inch --named for his botched sex-change operation --consists of Dee on keyboards, Lori Nuti from New Orleans as love interest/backup singer Yitzak, and Naples residents Mike Haddock on drums, I.B. Moore on bass and Lee Blackston, Tony Alba and Devon Cogan on guitars.

Haddock, a.k.a. Max Mosquito, said he was eager to join the production.

"It's witty humor, and the music is unbelievable," he said. "A lot of people say, ‘So it's a gay play?' No, it's about heartbreak, getting stabbed in the back and having to rise up from that. Everybody's been through that."

Dee said the musical is based on Plato's symposium with the recurring theme of finding your other half.

"Makeup, wigs, glitz --that's a form of escape for Hedwig," she said. "At the end of the day, he has to look at himself in the mirror with no makeup and say, ‘Who am I?' It is deep. There are many different levels you can take the show on."

At the first dress rehearsal last Friday morning, the tie on Swann's voluminous red, white and blue cape became knotted during the first song, "Tear Me Down." Once that problem was fixed, rehearsal resumed --but not for long.

"I'm sorry. I have to stop. I cannot breathe," Swann said, slipping from his character's German accent into his faint native Kentucky twang.

A few people rushed onto the stage to loosen his corset.

"Aaaahhhh, yeah," he sighed. "There you go!"

"This is the first time he's performed in the corset," Dee explained from off stage. "It's a little tighter than he expected. You know, beauty is pain. His cleavage are vine-ripened tomatoes."

The corset still proved troublesome as Swann attempted to lie sexily on the floor. Instead, he looked stiff and awkward.

"After my back surgery, I decided to go into rock and roll," he joked, still in character.

Dee revised the blocking so Swann could sit in a chair, and they were at it again --but by now Swann was flustered.

"Basically, it's an 86-page monologue interrupted by 10 songs," Dee said. "It's very line intensive. He hasn't had problem No. 1 with lines all week, but with the corset, the poor thing can't breathe."

"Don't talk to him," stage manager Jay Coker joked in a German accent, drawing an imaginary box around Swann while he reviewed his script. "He's in the learning lines box."

Earlier that morning, Swann explained that his character lures the audience into the play's deeper meaning.

"All of this is a way to get your attention so you pay attention to the story," he said, waving his hand in front of 2 1/2 hours worth of makeup. "The story is what you give up for freedom and what you give up for love."