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Rock out with a transsexual dynamo and her band

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Water Street Music Hall is presenting its first fully staged rock musical, a sensational production of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But you can bet this won't be its last.

            Produced here in Rochester --- mostly by Syracuse theater artists and Rochester musicians --- this exciting production is in every way first-class. It's scheduled to play through June 20, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the run extended.

            I hadn't visited the Water Street Music Hall before, and was surprised to find it a perfect venue for this high-energy production. Despite its 7,000-square-foot main room, the hall is set up with cabaret-style tables and theater seats close to its open thrust stage, and it actually feels intimate.

            You can step outside the theater area to get food, snacks, and drinks at the 80-foot-long bar, but the show holds theatergoers in its own charmed circle. Hedwig prowls among the audience. We are mesmerized by the powerful, throbbing rock score, the swirling concert lighting, and the campy high jinks that make us feel a part of the show.

            If you don't know the award-winning film starring creator John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, and haven't seen this theatrical phenomenon onstage, be alerted that it is the most quirky, involving, edgy entertainment since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like that earlier cult favorite, Hedwig and the Angry Inchcenters on a transsexual dynamo with a gang of bizarre accomplices.

            But, though it tells at least as wicked and outlandish a story through rock songs, Hedwig is presented as an actual concert by "the internationally ignored rock star." Audible, if the door in the stage wings is opened, is a simultaneous concert by superstar Tommy Gnosis, once Hedwig's protégé. She will tell us how all that happened and all about her "angry inch."

            It's all she has left of a botched operation to turn this once young boy into a woman so an American soldier could marry her and get her out of East Germany. But Hedwig's war-bride life as trailer-trash USA blew up; Hedwig did her own share of blowing; and she wound up a singer, writing songs for the kid she seduced until he discovered her angry inch. Now she tours with a rock band she calls The Angry Inch.

            This version has Hedwig haunted by the sounds floating across the water to Water Street from Rochester's Blue Cross Arena, where Tommy is wowing a much larger crowd. In the triumphant finale, the actor playing Hedwig will also play and sing Tommy.

            Really skilled performer/instrumentalists are required to back up Hedwig, including her bearded new husband, Yitzhak, whom she stopped from being another drag queen. Yitzhak is always played by a woman, and Aysa Morehead looks and sounds great in the role, even singing one song originally Hedwig's.

            The others, all got up in distinctive guises, are Jay Repp, bass; Nate Coffey, lead guitar; Mike Watson, rhythm guitar; Don Blair, keyboard; and the show's musical director, Dennis Mariano, on drums. By any exacting standard, they make up a top-level rock band.

            But basically this show belongs to its star. Aaron Berk, who is also vocal director and co-producer, is not so womanly as the original two Hedwigs, but he sings brilliantly and is far and away the most physically virtuosic Hedwig I've seen.

            Berk claims to have no formal dance training, but he effortlessly raises a leg in a six-o'clock extension and slides to the floor in a full side-split. Even ignoring his showy clowning and star-dazzle, you'll be astounded by the sheer intensity of his energy. Most performers even in great physical shape would still conclude 24 performances like this one in need of a wheelchair.

            Credit sure-handed young director Ryan J. Davis with the imaginative choreography and inventive new comic touches in this revival. He and sound designer Scott Selman manage to make almost every word clear in Stephen Trask's memorable lyrics, while everybody does full justice to Trask's beautiful music.

            The staging looks great with clever new animation by Steve Rosolio projected onto David L. Meyer's large, versatile set. R. Allen Babcock's lighting hits a nice balance between dramatic presentation and rock concert.

            And the same could be said for the whole production. I haven't a quibble about any of its values as a musical comedy. But the piece is about a rock concert; and a rock concert is supposed to arouse its audience into a frenzy of appreciation, jumping up, dancing, and vocally expressing approval. I'd be surprised if this show doesn't get that reaction at every performance.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, directed by Ryan J. Davis; plays at the Water Street Music Hall, 28 Lawn Street, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 20. Tix: $20 to $25, $10 to 15 for students, a portion of the proceeds will benefit the HIV Trial Unit at the University of Rochester. Tickets available at Ticketmaster (232-1900) and Aaron's Alley (244-5044) Info: www.waterstreetmusic.com.

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