The rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is returning to Kansas City, and for some local actors, it’s almost like a family reunion.
Starring will be local actor Katie Gilchrist and Justin Carter-Van Pelt, a Hedwig alum and Kansas City native who now lives in New York. This will be Carter-Van Pelt’s sixth performance of Hedwig. Gilchrist, who will play the role of Yitzhak, has performed the songs in a concert version. Vanessa Severo will direct, and a four-piece band on stage for the Arts Asylum performances will provide the music.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical about an East German genderqueer singer in a band who escapes East Germany by becoming a woman married to a U.S. serviceman, but has a botched sex-change operation.
It was written by John Cameron Mitchell in 1998, with music by Stephen Trask. Mitchell was the original Hedwig in the Off Broadway run, starred in the movie version, and also performed a limited run in 2015 on Broadway after a steady stream of actors, including Neil Patrick Harris, Darren Criss, and others. Mitchell has said he drew inspiration for the musical from his life as the son of an Army major general and the time he spent in Junction City, Kan., with their German babysitter.
This will be Severo’s first time directing Hedwig, but she’s no stranger to the play.
“I was in it twice before, in 2002 and 2008. But this will be the first time I’m on the other side of the table. The first one was at a theater in Springfield [Mo.] called the Vandivort Center Theatre, and the second was at what is now called the MTH theater, but it was called the Off Center Theatre at the time,” she said.
Severo, a native of Brazil, has lived in Kansas City since 1998 and has been on stage in many theatrical venues since 2002. After Hedwig closes, her next gig will be at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in Sex With Strangers (March 2-25). She is married to John Armstrong, and they have a 5-year-old daughter named Ava. She said she is working on a one-woman play based on the life of the legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Severo said she is making some slight changes to this production that are different from the Broadway version. One example is in a song.
“The revival really changed up the song ‘Sugar Daddy,’ and you either loved it or hated it,” she said. “I’ve gone back to the original ‘Sugar Daddy,’ which is more upbeat. The only thing that can change with the music is the way it is sung and the intention.”
Severo said that she sees the character of Hedwig as a very angry person for all that she had to go through, and she wanted that conveyed in the music.
“A lot of it is very campy and silly, but a lot of it is raw. … People tried to make it pretty and a lot of these songs aren’t pretty. It’s Punk 101,” she said with a laugh.
“I feel like when I’ve been listening to Hedwig in the last 10 years, it seems to get much more musical theater. And what I missed about Hedwig is that it’s not musical theater. It’s not Hamilton, it’s not Rent, it is its own thing. It is literally a rock musical. It is a punk glam rock musical.
“What I loved about it the very first time I saw it was that I had never seen anything like it, and it was edgy and it was raw and it was kind of dirty. You felt like maybe you had fallen into an alley and found this venue, and went inside, got a drink and watched the show. I wanted to go right back to that kind of feeling. So I have stripped it down to what I feel is really important: telling the story, and music that will melt your face off!”
Severo said there was no question that she would want Justin Carter-Van Pelt in this production because she had performed with him in a previous version and she says his talent has only gotten better over the years.
Severo is looking forward to performing at the Arts Asylum. “I performed West Side Story there, and now they have this fantastic sound system. It’s really come a long way.”
She said the original musical was in a small club that sat around 100 people. “It should feel intimate. The audience should feel they are practically on stage.”
Severo said she could relate to Mitchell’s background.
“He was an Army brat. I was an Army brat,” she said. “My father was also stationed in Germany for six years. It’s interesting to find the correlation in that. He talks about the Berlin Wall. I saw the Berlin Wall before it came down and didn’t understand the gravitas of it at that time. I was in sixth grade.
“At the end of this play, Hedwig walks away, like a Greek character. You have this man who almost becomes a woman who almost becomes an American who almost becomes a rock star. At the end of the play, it’s stripped down to where he’s not a man and he’s not a woman and Hedwig has evolved into something else, kind of like a higher gender, maybe the equality of both parts. Hedwig spends the entire play talking about finding her other half. I think that what’s important to find at the end of this play is that her other half is already inside us. So that’s pretty much the journey I’m trying to really focus on. I feel like I’m bringing that.”
For this production, Severo said, “I feel more like a coach than a director. I really assembled very intelligent players and they all have skills, but intelligence is what’s most important because they have to be quick and fill in the blanks and that’s what’s working.”
Justin Carter-Van Pelt expects playing this role to be different this time. Hedwig, he said, has a certain emotional maturity.
“She’s seen so much. When I first started doing the show and I was 22, 23, something like that, I thought, ‘What does a 22-year-old know?’ I hadn’t really had a whole lot of life experiences at that point. I had lived in Kansas City all of my life. I had never been out of the country. Now I have a husband. I’ve been to Berlin. I’ve met all sorts of other people all over the world. I think I have a lot more life experiences to bring to the show. I’m a better performer than I was 10 years ago. I’m a better singer, better actor. I’ve been given this weird gift that so few entertainers are given to revisit a role. The political climate in the country right now is abhorrent. I think that this show has a lot to say about that.”
Since Carter-Van Pelt moved to New York, he has performed in musical theater on cruise ships, sometimes for as long as eight months, and also crafted a musical act, Justin Valentine, that he performs in New York clubs.
“What I do in New York is very equal parts stand-up, show-hosting, musical theater – all those accidental skills I’ve acquired doing bar shows, cabaret shows,” he said. “They lend themselves very much to Hedwig.”
He met his husband, Alex, an actor and writer, in New York as well. They married in October 2017.
To play Hedwig in Kansas City, Carter-Van Pelt is leaving behind his husband and New York for five weeks. Since their marriage, he and Alex have both taken the same last name – Carter-Van Pelt. Many people in Kansas City may remember Justin as Justin Michael Van Pelt.
“There’s got to be somebody in Kansas City going ‘God, Justin’s doing this again. Can’t he do anything else?’” he laughed. “I just like it. The music is so wonderful, the script is great. There are very few shows – and this is the only one I can think of – that really combines everything I love about performance. I’m much more comfortable fronting a band than I am doing musical theater, and that’s what this feels like.”
Carter-Van Pelt said that he is looking forward to performing with his friend Katie Gilchrist and the four-man band. He said there are more women involved in this production than many. “This time, it’s very much a female energy-driven show. I think that’s very cool and very interesting. We have Vanessa directing, and it’s a co-production between Egads and the Arts Asylum theater. There is Courtney Perry, who is incredible, and then we have a stage manager, assistant stage manager and set design, and they’re all women.”
Carter-Van Pelt said that because he wants to spend more time at home with his husband, he’ll be doing fewer cruise ship performances.
“It’s not fun. That’s the worst part about going away for a contract. … I have to find the next contract while you’re in the middle of what you’re doing. The overwhelming dread of being in the last month of a contract and thinking, ‘I have to go back to New York and find a job to pay the bills.’”
Carter-Van Pelt said he saw the New York production of Hedwig twice, and he intentionally saw the shows starring Mitchell. He said he met Mitchell years ago. “Very briefly at a bar one night. We exchanged hellos and we spoke for just a moment. I thanked him for the work and the show and said how much it had meant to me personally and professionally. He was very gracious, very nice.”
Carter-Van Pelt’s education was in art, not theater. He is an accomplished illustrator and painter. He created the poster for Hedwig that we feature on this cover of Camp and also specializes in drawings of drag queens. His illustration of Kansas City make-up artist Andy Chambers was featured on a previous cover of Camp. He sells his drawings on Instagram, using @jtothevp.
He joked on his Facebook page that most of his luggage from New York to Kansas City was filled with costumes for Hedwig.
“I offered to do costumes,” he said. “The offer is two-fold for me. I was just worried there would not be enough time for a costume designer to do what they needed to do with me in the two-week rehearsal time. I also knew that with the resources that I have in New York, that I would be able to probably do the costumes and keep the budget low. With the Garment District, I have access to more.”
Carter-Van Pelt said he was able to get the well-known New York wig designer Bobbie Zlotnik to create Hedwig’s hair. Zlotnik sells wigs and hair accessories on his website, bobbiepinz.com. He said that in addition to creating the wigs for many Broadway shows, Zlotnik makes wigs for the alumni of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I got really lucky with him. I met him through Alex. He did the wigs for a show that Alex did. He offered to do the wig for me. It’s beautiful.” Van Pelt said that it was the one thing that did not get packed in his luggage. “I carried it on. I did not check it. This is not leaving my sight,” he said with a laugh.
If You Go
Performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch will run from Jan. 31 to Feb. 17 at the Arts Asylum, 1000 E. Ninth St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets can be purchased at https://goo.gl/k1MJ2m