Cory Benway looks 20, but he has been performing capably as an adult in local playhouses for more than two decades. Insurgo Theater's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," though, releases something triumphant in him. He commands the stage with a new charm and dominance. He dares you to not want to look at him. And he does it all in character. There's no telling where Benway ends and Hedwig begins.
John Cameron Mitchell's book and Steven Trask's score create a small-scaled rock concert that weaves a tale of abandonment and rebirth. Between breathtakingly written and performed numbers, Hedwig tells us of his childhood in Communist East Berlin, his attempt to escape by becoming a woman and marrying an American man, his botched sex-change operation -- considering the consequences to his love life, you understand the anger in that inch -- and his love for a man who deserted him under cruel circumstances and then went on to become a big rock star.
The small playing area is dwarfed by the sounds of a massive, cheering audience coming from a nearby concert being given by Hedwig's former lover. The contrast in where the two men have ended up is always peeking through the story, giving it a layer of bitterness that won't go away.
Naturally, Hedwig has to be played by a multitalented performer -- and, yes, Benway can sing, dance and act -- but what's surprising is the direct line of communication he establishes with an audience. He looks like Sally Bowles on a bad night (thanks to an ingeniously detailed decadent costume by Sandra Huntsman). His outbursts of sudden rage seem like something out of a Nazi training movie. But he always manages a frightened vulnerability. He begs the audience for its warmth, the way Judy Garland did. And when he finds himself in the end, Benway makes you want to cheer. He transforms "Hedwig" into a love story between performer and audience.
The five-member onstage band and Jenn De La Torre (as a curious, bearded sidekick named Yitzhak) each have showstopping moments. It's easy to see David Tapper's strong directorial hand. No one seems to make a single false move, and the collaboration, just as collaborations should, feels born of one imagination.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.