In Encore Theater Company’s authentically raw, terrifically intimate presentation, which opened Thursday, April 7 at Club Vex smoothly directed by Shane Anderson, the remarkable JJ Parkey completely inhabits the witty, glamorous, opinionated, sarcastic, heartbroken and steadfast Hedwig, an “internationally ignored” wannabe rock star born Hansel Schmidt to an East German mother and an American G.I. As Hedwig’s unique tale breezily evolves from his rocky childhood in tumultuous Berlin to life post transgender surgery in a Kansas trailer park as a divorcee and babysitter hoping for stardom, Parkey, unafraid to interact with the audience while strutting through the aisles with fetching flair, becomes a vulnerable, captivating storyteller, particularly in terms of his astute narrative abilities and seamless transitions when embodying other characters, specifically Hedwig’s seductive “Sugar Daddy” Luther and his lover-turned-nemesis Tommy Gnosis. Musically, he fully embraces the grittiness of rock numbers “Tear Me Down,” “The Angry Inch” and “Exquisite Corpse,” leads the snazzy sing-a-long “Wig in a Box” with carefree whimsy, and unhurriedly savors the lyrically introspective beauty of “The Origin of Love” and the poignant “Wicked Little Town,” hauntingly reprised with evocative assistance from lighting designers Brian Cox and Nicholas Crumbley.
This musical is often considered a one-man show, but has always been a solid two-hander due to the presence of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s obsessive, occasionally bickering husband superbly portrayed with crazed, wide-eyed intensity by the mesmerizing Abigail Nessen Bengson, who took Dayton by storm last season as Mimi in Encore’s production of “Rent.” Yitzhak is primarily a reaction role, but Bengson, while never stealing focus from Parkey or reducing the compatible rapport they establish, commands attention with every dynamic, character-specific move she makes. Despite the fact that Parkey sings the lion’s share of the score, Bengson, one of the most vocally dexterous and magnetic singers I have heard, offers wonderful back-up and a few solo moments to be treasured. Her brief and unassuming rendition of “I Will Always Love You” contains soulful inflections that rival Whitney Houston’s definitive interpretation. Equally thrilling is her passionately full throttle and fiery version of “The Long Grift,” Yitzhak’s prime occasion to bask in the spotlight. The number is a hallmark of this production and a joy to behold.
Guitarist Shaun McClain Bengson, Abigail’s husband, is a member of the excellently balanced on stage band led by music director/pianist John Faas and also featuring percussionist Shea Castle and bassist Luke Dennis.
Encore impressively executes Hedwig’s fascinating, humorous and gripping journey of survival. Parkey and Bengson’s outstanding performances are not to be missed.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues Friday, April 8 at Club Vex, 101 S. St. Clair St., and Saturday, April 9 at MJ’s Cafe, 119 E. Third St. Performances begin at 8 p.m. The musical, which is performed in 90 minutes without intermission, contains adult language and mature themes. Tickets are $15. For tickets or more information, visit www.encoretheatercompany.com
In related news, Encore’s 2011 summer mainstage series, in association with Sinclair Community College, includes ETC’s Big Fat Concert Series Vol. 2: I Feel So Much Spring-Seasons and Celebrations (April 29-30 at The Color of Energy Gallery), Altar Boyz (June 16-18 at Sinclair’s Blair Hall Theatre), In My Blood (July 14-16 at Sinclair’s Blair Hall Theatre), Pump Up The Volume and The Consequences (Aug. 4-6 at the Loft Theatre in conjunction with the Human Race Theatre Company) and ETC’s Big Fat Concert Series Vol. 3: The Best of Big Fat (TBA).