If the stage is a rockin’… EPAC presents: ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

By on October 24, 2018

Zander Gawn stars as the transgender punk rocker Hedwig in the gender-bent musical “Hedwig and the  Angry Inch,” being staged at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center through Nov. 3. (LNP file photos)


I cannot recall the first time I walked into a theatre to see a show. I’m sure it was part of some public-school field trip to some local stage where I saw some title appropriate for growing minds. Of this day, in my mind, massive curtains were drawn across a proscenium arch towering high above the floor. Surely, there was some introduction, a welcome to so-and-so, theatre and a brief description of what we would see that day. The lights would dim. The curtains would draw open as if by some mysterious force and the actors and actresses would portray their characters until the end of the performance. After which we would board a crowded, cacophonous bus and be returned to our previously scheduled programming.

The fact that my first encounter with theatre holds no reverent place of stature in my memory is a shame. When younger I was subjected to theatre that followed a starch set of rules, rested upon historical practice, and was more than likely modeled after the theatre in the next town.

I offer this personal anecdote to note how theatre has changed. This change can be no more evident as witnessed by EPAC’s presentation of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which opened Thursday, Oct. 18 to a motivated and eager crowd.

Upon entering Sharadin Bigler Theatre, the stage is already set, as a five-piece rock band gives a final tune of their instruments and is getting ready to perform. Transformed into a concert venue the set takes advantage of every inch-no pun intended-of space and then some. Prerecorded announcements mingle with chatter from theatregoers until stage manager Alex Bannon, who becomes a brief part of the show himself, makes his way onstage to Yitzhak (Elizabeth Checchia), backup singer for and husband of Hedwig (Zander Gawn), tonight’s main attraction. There’s a slight row and Yitzhak is forced to read preshow announcements.*

Enter the genderqueer Hedwig and the show blasts off with “Tear Me Down,” which introduces the former Berlin resident who has been “split in two,” a reference to her part-male/part-female gender, her hometown, and her trials in life.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” stars Elizabeth Checchia as Yitzhak and Zander Gawn as Hedwig put on a powerful, gender-bending punk rock performance on stage.

After a rol”licking” start comes a semi-improvised stand-up comedy routine incorporating EPAC-specific and local jokes. Nothing is sacred as Hedwig pokes fun at Artistic Director Edward Fernandez; set designer Michelle, a.k.a. Mike Rhoads; and past performers on the very stage upon which she stands. Even the heralded and uber-respected Jonathan Groff takes a licking — or, at least his essence does. Mere minutes into the performance, my cheeks were already starting to burn from excessive smiling and laughing.

With each musical number (and the often hilarious but also powerfully revealing interludes) we learn more about Hedwig, who is on a tour of sketchy venues that mirrors the tour of successful musician Tommy Gnosis. Tommy (unseen) was Hedwig’s soul mate until he could not come to terms with her sexuality. After revealing all of this, Hedwig abandons the mic mid-show and leaves Yitzhak to pick up “The Long Grift.”

Hedwig is falling apart before our eyes, wrestling with her emotions, and coming to grips with who she is. Stripped of her costume, she transforms into a pseudo Tommy Gnosis and begs for forgiveness in a reprise of “Wicked Little Town.” The first incarnation of this song, before her breakdown, literally gave me chills as Gawn presented his full theatrical range in a powerful and moving song.

Hedwig passes the torch, and the wig, to a grateful Yitzhak, who reappears in fabulous drag (Kate Willman, costume design). Although the finale is to be Yitzhak’s grand moment — where he once again can become the drag queen champion he is —  it is overshadowed by Checchia’s own ability seen half way through the show in “The Long Grift.” I don’t know where Checchia got her pipes, but she needs to show those things off more frequently. Last seen on the EPAC stage as the Wicked Witch of the West, theatregoers only got a taste of her vocal abilities through her hair-raising cackles in “The Wizard of Oz.” Here, she belts a sorrowful, emotional lament that made me want to shout, which I did — this is that kind of show.

Reviewer Michael Upton had nothing but glowing things to say about
Elizabeth Checchia’s genderbending performance in “Hedwig and
the Angry Inch.”

Somewhere between musical and rock show, “Hedwig” is entertainment on a whole ‘nother level. Wildly entertaining, the moral of social- and self-acceptance is at times almost lost in the concert venue-like light show, rocking musical numbers, and audience participation. Alas, it is almost lost; almost, because through the glitter and glam shines a powerful story of the human spirit.

“Hedwig” is not your average production. The show keeps with EPAC’s dedication to present “theatre that matters.” It is as timely as it is fun, as introspective as it is flamboyant. I know live performances are not for everyone, but if there was ever a time to make your first trip to a theatre, this is it. You will remember this performance. The boundaries are gone, the story is fluid, and the emotions spill over from the stage to the seats leaving viewers in awe.

*Preshow announcements are usually handled by EPAC Artistic Director Edward Fernandez, but in “Hedwig” this is now part of the show. Checchia is hilarious and off the cuff. I have no idea how she refrained from laughing and kept in character while asking the crowd to consider donating to some guy named HVAC and struggling (in character) to pronounce the names of local sponsors.

Michael C. Upton works as a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes your comments at SomeProMCU@gmail.com.

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