A story about a transsexual East German rocker with some rather unusual anatomy may seem like a story that wouldn't play well in Utah. But Beehive State audiences are no strangers to the glam-rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."
Nearly a decade after it first premiered the show, Plan-B Theatre Company is presenting the musical for a third time in a production at Park City's Egyptian Theatre.
The 1998 musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask was adapted into a film in 2001. Mitchell starred in the title role and directed the film, which won the best-director and audience awards at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Plan-B premiered the musical in Utah in 2003 and produced it again in 2005.
Since the movie's release, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" has achieved "staggering cult status" around the world, said Jerry Rapier, producing director of Plan-B Theatre Company.
The stage version is significantly different and "much more interesting" than the film, Rapier said. Many of the characters are seen through Hedwig's eyes as he tells his life story during his cabaret act.
The story begins with Hedwig as Hansel, an East German "slip of a girlyboy." When a U.S. soldier falls in love with Hansel, his mother gets her son out of the country by having him undergo a sex change operation, which leaves him with essentially genderless genitalia.
"Hedwig is neither a man nor woman," Rapier said. "But he finds it more comfortable and easier to navigate life identifying as a women because of the botched sex change operation and the angry inch -- the title is literal."
Hedwig marries the soldier and migrates to the United States, but is soon abandoned and left living in a trailer park. Hedwig forms a band and falls in love with a shy teenager, who also abandons her, steals her music and becomes a famous rock star who goes by the name of Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig then sets out on a cross-country tour with her act -- essentially stalking Tommy, Rapier said.
"Hedwig is pursuing Tommy Gnosis across the country, trying to get the validation from him that she craves," Rapier said. "She wants him to admit that his success is due to her, but of course, it becomes this meditation on love and soulmates and finding your other half and really kind of this amazing kick-ass rock score."
Actor revisits Hedwig
Rapier is directing the reboot of Plan-B's production, which includes some familiar faces. The cast includes Layton native Latoya Rhodes as Yitzhak, a member of Hedwig's band The Angry Inch.
Aaron Swenson of Salt Lake City will be reprising the role of Hedwig, a part he played for the theater company when it premiered the show.
"It would honestly be ludicrous to try to do the show in Utah without Aaron as Hedwig," Rapier said. "There's a rarity that comes when there is such a clear connection between an actor and a role. You don't see it very often when the stars perfectly align, but that's the case with Aaron and the role of Hedwig."
Swenson grew up in Alaska and Oregon and moved to Utah in 1997 to attend school at Brigham Young University.
"That lasted a year and I had a lovely time, but I was politely asked to leave," Swenson said.
Currently employed as the wardrobe supervisor at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Swenson is also in charge of costumes for this production.
"I promise that the costumes alone will be worth it," Swenson said.
However, Swenson said, the real heart of the story lies beneath the costumes, makeup and other artifices. Hedwig is a flawed, damaged and ultimately very human character. Swenson believes audiences will find in Hedwig's transformative story -- a journey that is real, life-affirming and moving.
Hedwig uses her makeup, wigs and outrageous costumes as "armor" to protect herself from the cruelties of the world, Swenson explained.
"There are ways that you can interact with the world that lets you keep everybody at arm's distance so that losses don't hurt quite as much or so that you can manage your feelings of frustration and anger and the essential unfairness of everything," Swenson said. "She kind of got trapped in a late adolescence and spends the rest of her life trying to grow up and get past some pretty undeniably terrible things that have happened."
It isn't until that armor is stripped away that Hedwig can move forward and allow others in her circle to move forward.
"It's a show very much about letting go of your vanity," Swenson said.
Yitzhak is one of those characters who needs to move on and blossom into his full potential and beauty as a human being. Rhodes is playing the part of Hedwig's male bandmate, whose true drag-queen persona is being stifled and ground under Hedwig's domineering heels.
Rhodes, who has played male characters before -- in Shakespeare's "Henry V" and "Waiting for Godot" -- said she is drawing inspiration from some of her favorites male musical artists, as well as her stepfather.
"He is, like, one of the most manliest men I know," Rhodes said. "He rides a Harley and plays the guitar and is soft-spoken, but very stern."
While Rhodes adores classic musicals such as "My Fair Lady" and the like, she also appreciates edgier musicals such as "Hedwig" that utilize different storytelling devices, push the boundaries and aren't afraid to make an audience think.
Both Rhodes and Swenson invite audiences to go with them on those journeys as Hedwig and Yitzhak stretch outside of their boxes.
"Transgender individuals are becoming much more visible in society, and a lot of people are trying to grapple with how it is they feel about that and whether or not they believe that is valid," Swenson said. "I think it's awesome for people to come see something like this and to realize that on a fundamental, emotional level, it's so easy to get past all of that once the person is in front of you."