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A new beast in the Jungle: ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

You can expect to see plenty of different shows at the Jungle Theater. Contemporary classics? Certainly. Great pieces of theater from the 20th century? Yep. Unusual new works that stretch the audience? Definitely.

But rock musicals about a German transsexual whose “sex change operation got botched” and who later gets betrayed by a young and stupid rock ‘n’ roller who steals her music, which inspires her to stalk him via a low-rent tour? (Below is a preview from the 2001 film version.)

OK, that last one seems like a stretch. Even so, Jungle Theater heir apparent Joel Sass doesn’t see the gender-bending “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which opens Friday, as being that much of a change for the theater.

After all, if you look at the audience for the Jungle, the company does draw a sizable younger audience. And the crowds, in general, “are very open-minded,” Sass says.

For a variety of reasons, “Hedwig” has endured in the decade since it stormed downtown Manhattan. Above all, there is the music. As a lover of theater and contemporary music, I cringe whenever a “rock musical” is presented, as it usually mixes the worst of both genres. Songwriter Steven Trask, however, knows how to rock and it comes through in Hedwig’s music — from storming stompers (check out the punk rock rage of “Angry Inch”) to the glorious “Origin of Love,” a guilt-free, lighter-raising power ballad.

“It has the cult appeal of the ‘Rocky Horror Show,’ but it has more of a sense of danger and potential,” Sass says. “And what audiences will find is that there’s a great show, with a great set and great music and lyrics and a great actor playing Hedwig.”

While the music comes from Trask, the story (and original vision of Hedwig) is all John Cameron Mitchell, who developed the story in the early 1990s. Working at drag clubs and with Trask’s rock band, Mitchell crafted a story that mixed most of society’s expectations into a blender. The cocktail hit New York in 1997, causing an award-winning off-Broadway sensation. Tour and future productions (including one at the Loring Playhouse in 2002) followed, as did a film in 2001.

What patrons won’t find at the Jungle in the next month and a half is the familiar theater. The entire facility has been transformed into the “The Red Fez Grill,” which Sass envisions as a an old lodge/VFW hall type of place that has fallen on hard times, with a handful of members “coming in for a beer and hosting punk rock shows on Thursday nights.”

For Hedwig, the Jungle has Jarius Abts. The area actor, who has appeared in such diverse fair as West Side Story, High School Musical and the Rocky Horror Show (under Sass’ direction) makes his Jungle debut in the role.

Sass is thrilled with the actor’s work, especially now that the production has moved into full-blown rehearsals. Once in costume and character, Abts comes out blazing, which is what the director wants from every facet of the production.

“It’s a show that has to go out from under your control,” Sass says.

What: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
Where: The Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: July 18-Aug. 31
Cost: $26-$30
Phone: 612-822-7063
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