Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Common Ground Theatre
Through Sept. 22

The smash musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch can be off-putting to some audiences and indeed, Saturday evening’s crowd at the Common Ground Theatre seemed nervous. The laughter was hushed and sparse as they observed the bewigged blond East Berlin rock star standing downstage in red stilettos and a blue jean mini. As played in captivating fashion by Michael Gagnon, Hedwig is a force to be reckoned with, a spitfire transsexual who reveals the most intimate of secrets with conviction and frank honesty. But, of course, the bare bones of truth can be hard to swallow.

First appearing in 1998, from a book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a re-envisioned Rocky Horror for the millennium (and one that, in fact, is showing signs of achieving a similar level of cult adulation). Sharing the same glam backbone as Rocky, Hedwig is the story of a transgendered rocker who moved to the United States from East Berlin after being seduced by a handsome American soldier. In order to marry, however, the young Hedwig consented to an ultimately botched sex-change operation that left her with a ragged mound of one-inch flesh. Still, Hedwig overcomes her physical mutilation and reinvents herself as a glam-rocker. The play takes place in Hedwig’s dressing room, where she serenades the theater audience with songs about her life, love and heartbreak as she waits to take the stage at a rock concert.

It’s in these songs that the cast of Common Ground Theatre’s Hedwig excels. Gagnon (who is the Indy‘s office manager) takes Hedwig’s spite and rage to heightened levels in the punkish “The Angry Inch” and the ripping rock of “Exquisite Corpse.” And the musical pairing of Gagnon’s rich baritone with the honeyed vocals of Skylar Gudas, who plays Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, not only adds complexity to the music but also confronts skewed connotations of sexual identity. The interplay between Gagnon and Gudas provides the fine line of tension the play needs to survive.

In fact, it is central to the beauty of Hedwig that the play’s dramatic themes are resolved within the confines of rock songs. In the final moments, when Hedwig switches from female to male and the shackles of gender determinism are tossed aside, it’s easy to understand that Hedwig is a story of love and acceptance. These are universal themes that every humanmale, female or somewhere in betweencan relate to in this beautifully performed production. Kathy Justice

Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes
Temple Theatre
Through Sept. 30

When Nashville veteran and off-Broadway star Jason Petty steps onto the stage in a Nudie suit, black leather cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, it’s hard not to do a double take. Petty looks like Hank Williams and channels himnot only in appearance, but in spirit.

However, Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes is not a re-enactment of the events of Williams’ life but a carefully researched retelling of the history and emotions behind the man and his music. Petty speaks in his own voice when relaying the timeline of Williams’ life, and only slips into full-on impersonation mode when he’s singing the hits that elevated an impoverished Alabama street urchin into country music Valhalla.

Backing Petty is his stellar band, complete with fiddle (D.H. Finch), bass (Dave Martin), guitar (Steve Newman) and steel guitar (Russ Weaver). The band works with Petty to anchor the story, accentuating the sadder parts of Williams’ life with the downtrodden wail of a fiddle or the lonesome moan of steel guitar. Together, Petty and the band work through Williams’ life in song: “Lovesick Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Jambalaya on the Bayou,” “Kaw-Liga” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” are among the better reworkings of the canon.

As much as the musical revue focuses on Williams’ life, Petty also offers tidbits and insights into his own life, telling the story of his marriage and boasting of the birth of his baby girl. And for the vast majority of us who weren’t around to witness Williams’ all-too-brief career, Petty’s showwith its carefully constructed honky tonk atmosphereis a startling and convincing substitute for the real thing. Kathy Justice

Intimate Apparel
Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Sept. 23

Set at the dawn of the 20th century, Intimate Apparel tells the simple tale of Esther Mills (Barbette Hunter), a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who has worked almost continuously since she was 9 years old. Esther aspires to open a beauty parlor in town, one where all women could go and “be treated like a lady.” Her tiny world of loyal friends (some of whom double as customers) and the slow but steady achievement of her dream is interrupted when an unexpected letter arrives from Panama bearing an important plot development: In it, she learns that a laborer named George Armstrong (Joseph Callender) is interested in courting her. Intrigued, Mills begins an initially tentative, then bold, epistolary romance with George, one that results in a test of commitments for the characters as they navigate the hazardous shoals of race, class, sex and religion toward personal happiness.

Under the direction of Linda O’Day Young, Intimate Apparel is a strong, emotionally resonant experience. At times, though, the show flickers and threatens to fade: Cast members occasionally let honest reactions edge past them, forcing them to grapple for a disingenuous emotion before quickly recovering and landing strongly on their feet. On balance a solid production, Intimate Apparel is a story of finding strength in the face of betrayal and broken dreams. Megan Stein