Brilliant and unorthodox, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not your typical musical. It's a full-on rock concert experience.
Jeremy Whittington of Stage Left Theater and Josephine Keefe of Spokane Ensemble Theatre teamed up to produce Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Bing Crosby Theater this weekend. The genius of John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) come together to create the perfect blend of storytelling and song, all of which are performed by genderqueer East German rock singer Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch. Rio Alberto and Felix Lewis lead the production as Hedwig and Hedwig's husband and backup singer, Yitzhak.
The show (adapted into a cult classic film in 2001) follows Hedwig, the victim of a botched sex-change operation, on tour with her band, except the tour is not what it seems. Hedwig and her band play in the smallest of small venues like coffee shops and dive bars, while rock star and former love of Hedwig's, Tommy Gnosis, plays the songs Hedwig and Tommy wrote together to sold-out crowds at nearby venues. Throughout the show, Hedwig tells her life story through comedic asides and the songs played with her band.
"It's as if we've taken this band and singer and stage manager, and they're touring and they just happen to be at the Bing Crosby Theater that night," Whittington says.
Alberto and Lewis will be joined on stage by a live band of four taking on the role of the Angry Inch.
"They are in costume, they might even riff with Rio at certain times, there might be some improvisational banter and moments of silliness," Keefe says. "There is that element of performance that band members don't often get within a standard musical."
From a design perspective, the Bing is a much larger space than Stage Left. The 33-foot width of the Bing, as opposed to the 19-foot stage at Stage Left, allows Whittington to spread out his designs, which he says has been really nice. The biggest change from Stage Left to the Bing has been the auditory aspect. At the Bing, everything that happens sound-wise has to be projected both up and far back to reach the farthest seats in the space.
"At Stage Left, we don't even use microphones when we do shows, because everything is so intimate and small that a single voice whispering can fill that space," Whittington says.
Keefe and Whittington's partnership stems from their shared love of Hedwig and their desire to do the show justice by putting on a large-scale production. The two's wealth of experience and passion for their craft makes them well-equipped to do the show justice.
"The storyline of just embracing who you are really spoke to me, and I really wanted to do something big," Whittington says.
A wish for increased diversity within the Spokane theater community bridges Stage Left and Spokane Ensemble, making the partnership timely and necessary.
"Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not... Hedwig," is both the first line of the show and a sentiment that Rio Alberto carries closely with them throughout their performance as Hedwig. Hedwig is an immigrant, she identifies outside of the gender binary, and she is a misunderstood artist at heart, and as a Chicano, nonbinary artist, Alberto feels they can find themself in the character.
Alberto, however, was initially only planning on being a producer for the show. They recall approaching Whittington at last year's Spokane Arts Awards and asking point blank what direction he was going to go with the casting of Hedwig and if he was going to look for a trans or nonbinary actor to portray Hedwig.
"He was just like, 'It depends on who auditions.' And that was when I was like, OK, so if I don't audition, I can't say anything about how this goes because it was my decision to not be a part of it," Alberto says.
Alberto says that throughout undergraduate vocal training, they were continually told they didn't have a classical musical theater-sounding voice, which was challenging when a lot of traditional musicals, such as The Sound of Music and Oklahoma, require just that voice.
"I found a lot of comfort with a rock style like Hedwig," Alberto says. "Music itself is so directly influenced from rock and roll greats, and I think the rock and roll canon is not full of all of the most classically sounding vocalists, right? That's not why we like them. We like them because they tell a good story, they put on a good show."
Felix Lewis sees Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a show that creates more opportunities for queer voices.
"That's why I auditioned and wanted to get a part in this production, because I wanted my voice to be heard," he says.
In the past, a woman in drag has traditionally played Yitzhak, which Lewis has struggled with a bit. As a trans man, he says he's felt massive amounts of gender dysphoria at points in the process.
"I am afraid of going on stage and people not seeing me as a guy and people perceiving that I'm just in drag and outside of the show I'm this beautiful female, but that's not what I am at all," he says.
Everyone in the cast, though, is so open with their love and support, he says, which has greatly reassured him and allowed him to be truly proud to be a part of the show.
"Rio has taught me a lot during this process," Lewis says. "Just being able to share moments with them has boosted my confidence a lot and has been eliminating those voices out of my head."
Alberto credits Keefe and Whittington with cultivating an environment in which artists feel safe to deeply explore their characters. Throughout the show, Hedwig undergoes a deep transformation, and Keefe and Whittington have allowed Alberto to truly connect with and explore Hedwig.
A big part of their character's transformation throughout the show is the fact that as a child, Hedwig lived in East Berlin and left a year before the Berlin Wall fell.
"The way I see it, I see an individual who has been chewed up and spit out by dominant culture, an immigrant who grew up on one side of a wall that they saw get torn down physically, but there is still this block internally that they have to work through the course of the show to dismantle," Alberto says.
Keefe and Whittington have worked hard to set a precedent for equity in the Spokane theater community. Alberto's Hedwig and Lewis' Yitzhak demonstrate what Keefe and Whittington envision theater in Spokane looking like in the future.♦
Hedwig and the Angry Inch • Fri-Sun, July 29-31 at 7:30 pm • $27-$47 • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W Sprague Ave • bingcrosbytheater.com • 509-227-7638CORRECTION: The original version of this story identified Jeremy Whittington and Josephine Keefe as co-directors of the show, but between our press deadline and publication, Whittington stepped back from co-director to oversee scenic design, with Keefe working as the production's sole director.