Timing right for return of rock musical ‘Hedwig’ to Las Vegas stage

For someone who’s been an out-there outcast from the start, Hedwig’s flirting dangerously with the mainstream.

After all, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — the rock musical that showcases the gender-bending, “internationally ignored song stylist” of the title — is a Tony-winning Broadway smash.

It captured top awards for, among other things, best musical revival and best actor Neil Patrick Harris. (Taye Diggs is now stepping out on Broadway in Hedwig’s high heels.) And “Hedwig’s” national tour kicks off in October in — where else? — San Francisco.

Factor in transgender Caitlyn Jenner’s current reality-TV blitz and the time couldn’t be more prime for “Hedwig’s” return to the Las Vegas stage; the show opens a 13-performance run Thursday, launching the Onyx Theatre’s 10th season.

“The theater gods were smiling upon us when we received the phone call granting us the rights to ‘Hedwig,’ ” says director Troy Heard, the Onyx’s producing director. “I just love the story so much.”

Unlike the 2001 movie adaptation — which starred writer John Cameron Mitchell in the title role — the stage original presents a you-are-here concert with Hedwig (played by Cory Benway), his on- and off-stage partner Yitzhak (Jamie Riviere) and Hedwig’s rock band.

Said band is dubbed the Angry Inch in “honor” of the botched sex-change operation that left Hedwig (born Hansel) with an anatomical remnant of her former self.

The show follows Hedwig’s journey from East Germany to America, from painful past to glam-punk (but still painful) present.

And the musical’s songs (written by Stephen Trask), through which Hedwig tells her tale, make the show a quintessential rock musical.

“If anything could ever be called a rock musical,” Heard says, “this is it.”

The Onyx production makes room for some local and topical references, he notes, from “a Caitlyn Jenner joke” to Hedwig’s shout-out to her attorney, Las Vegas’ own “heavy hitter,” Glen Lerner.

But the show’s focus remains the same as has been since “Hedwig” made its Off-Broadway bow in 1998.

The title character’s odyssey may be painful — especially after Hedwig’s ex-flame, rock icon Tommy Gnosis, steals her songs. But there’s no mistaking Hedwig’s grit and determination as she opens her act with this defiant musical challenge: “Try to tear me down.”

Preparing for a recent rehearsal, Onyx’s Hedwig sits patiently backstage as makeup artist Alda Tomasic applies bright blue eyeshadow to Benway’s face — above the three pairs of false eyelashes already in place.

“I’m trying to make him look perfect,” Tomasic explains, “but not quite so perfect.”

Benway’s been down this particular path before, having played Hedwig in a 2010 Insurgo Theatre production, where he “transform(ed) ‘Hedwig’ into a love story between performer and audience,” to quote the review by the late Review-Journal theater critic, Anthony Del Valle.

“I’m pleased and relieved the lines have come back to me, but it’s not the same Hedwig” this time, Benway says, likening the process to putting on “old shoes I’ve outgrown — shoes that are no longer comfortable.”

With five years between Hedwigs, “even though the words are the same, there’s new meaning,” the actor says. “I’m a little older — maybe not wiser. A little more tired. And I embrace that.”

Little wonder, since perseverance in the face of the world’s seeming indifference (amid personal pain) emerges as a “Hedwig” hallmark.

On the Onyx stage, in the middle of a run-though, Benway hikes up Hedwig’s decorated denim skirt (that keeps slipping down), adjusts his net stockings and struggles with his microphone.

“It’s one button,” Benway says, briefly breaking character — or maybe not. “How do I get it wrong?”

A moment later, Benway’s back as Hedwig, who later admits to the audience, “I laugh, because I’ll cry if I don’t.”

And that, for all the show’s raucous rock music and stinging wit, remains the heart of “Hedwig,” Heard says.

“Everybody’s been in love, everybody’s had their heart broken,” he says, summarizing his simple concept for the production: “To tell the story of Hedwig.”

For more stories from Carol Cling go to bestoflasvegas.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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