- Caroline M. Holt
- GUMMI BÄRCHEN: Brittany Sparkles (left) and Anthony James Gerard (right) star in the Studio Theater's production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
For some people, the soundtrack to "Rent" can deliver a dizzying cocktail of endorphins and a corresponding emotional hangover. For others, it's "Les Miserables." Or "Fiddler on the Roof." And, for many, this listener included, it's usually just a resounding "Ew, Broadway. No. Turn it off." John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a rock musical about a genderqueer "slip of a girlyboy" from East Berlin who — spurred onward by the promise of discovering the elusive "other half" he heard about from Aristophanes in Plato's "Symposium" — ends up divorced and broke in Junction City, Kan., after a botched sex reassignment surgery. It's part glam rock a la Bowie and Mott the Hoople, part Greek philosophy circa 385 B.C. and part low-rent drag club comedy, and it's the first musical I ever loved. This weekend, The Studio Theatre begins its run of the queer culture classic with a bare-bones but vivacious ensemble: actors Anthony James Gerard and Brittany Sparkles, director Sheridan Posey, assistant director Ben Mills and music director John Willis.
From the very first lines of the play, we the audience are privy to the fact that Hedwig (played by Gerard) and her bandmate Yitzhak (played by Sparkles) have a history. For Gerard and Sparkles, that sense of familiarity won't need to be feigned under the spotlight; the pair have been best friends for eight years. Both regulars on the theater scene in Little Rock for as long as they can remember, Gerard and Sparkles have shared stages together. They've waited tables in restaurants together. While on vacation in Gulf Shores, Ala., in 2014, they got matching gummy bear tattoos (or, for fans of the "Hedwig" feature film version, "gummi bärchen"). Sparkles was the first one to put makeup on Gerard, who's been performing as a drag queen under the name Queen Anthony Gerard at Club Sway and the nascent Miss Kitty's Saloon for nearly five years. "She's always been a natural performer," Sparkles said of Gerard. "Always been an amazing actor, singer, dancer. Then, as soon as she figured out she could throw some makeup on, it became performance art, and it's been awesome to see." And, when the two then-roommates caught the film version of "Hedwig" on LOGO TV (and held subsequent repeat viewings on VHS) they were enamored. "This was actually when we first started envisioning that this could be us, should be us," Sparkles told us.
"A two-person show," Gerard said.
And that's what audiences for The Studio Theatre's production should expect. Excepting musical director/keyboardist John Willis and the band members (Luke Johnson on guitar, Logan J. Smith on bass and Svyatoslav Bolubah on drums), all the personalities in Hedwig's story (and there are many) are played by Gerard and Sparkles. That, by Mitchell's design, requires some flexibility when it comes to gender expression. Sparkles, who in her everyday life, is nearly always wearing a dress, vibrantly colored accessories and glitter on her face — goes full leather-and-spikes butch for the part of Yitzhak, as her predecessors Lena Hall and Miriam Shor have done. And for Gerard, the role is a dramatic departure from the drag persona he adopts as Queen Anthony. "As a drag queen, in the pageant-y Bible belt of drag, there's that diamond polisher," Gerard said. "You gotta at least polish it up and make it look good. You can't be a mess. With Queen, when she comes out on stage, people know that she's got her shit together. With Hedwig, we don't necessarily know how much she has it together. She literally has a breakdown in front of a live studio audience."
Symbolically speaking, it's fitting that the story of Hedwig Robinson, nee Hansel Schmidt, will unfold at a scrappy, underdog community theater spot and not, say, at a bigger, sleeker venue like Pulaski Tech's CHARTS or The Rep. The original 1998 off-Broadway production of "Hedwig" took place at the dingy 280-seat Jane Street Theatre in New York City's West Village — formerly the Riverview Hotel, the spot that housed the survivors of the RMS Titanic while the U.S. Senate conducted its inquiry into the ship's sinking. (Shor, who originated the role of Yitzhak, told Rolling Stone that before one early performance, a hotel resident had overdosed on an upper floor, and the body bag had to be wheeled past the line of incoming audience members.) The script, heavily ad-libbed at that time, broke the fourth wall, referencing the theater space's, um, quirks, in real time and positioning Hedwig as the "internationally ignored song stylist" whose former lover, Tommy Gnosis, had made off with all her good songs — and was ostensibly performing them that same evening to throngs of delirious fans under the bright lights at the nearby Giants (now Metlife) Stadium.
"The story to me overall," music director John Willis told the Arkansas Times, "is a huge moment of forgiveness for all the stumbling and flailing around we do as people trying to find who we are, who we can love, and who will love us. It's a love story where our main character, Hedwig, learns to love themselves. The show itself is such a LGBTQ-plus milestone to me because the character of Hedwig is so multidimensional compared to previous representations of queer and trans people in theater and film."
The space between one's biological sex and one's gender identity is where Hedwig's story takes place and, ironically, it's the specificity of Hedwig's misfit body that allows her to be a symbol for the universal; as she sings in the titular number "Angry Inch," "My sex change operation got botched/My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/Now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch/I got an angry inch." Or, as Mitchell told The Toronto Star, "She's more than a woman or a man. She's a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful."
For fans — Willis, Gerard, Sparkles and a legion of others — it's a show that's especially prone to forging memories and cementing personal connections. Willis recalled his own introduction to the tale.
"It is not a coincidence to me that the person who helped me the most in coming out myself," he said, "my beloved friend Gregory D. James, shared the movie version of Hedwig with me a week before he died, 16 years ago this August. Gregory was someone like Hedwig, larger than life, and like one of the songs in the show says, 'So much more than any god could ever plan, more than a woman or a man.' I am so honored and so humbled to be able to remember Gregory into life in this way. I dedicate the show to him."
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" opens Thursday, Aug. 10, at The Studio Theatre, 320 W. Seventh St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 20. Tickets range from $20-$25 and are available at eventbrite.com.