Toward the end of the Alt Theatre's Jan. 6 premiere of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the cult musical about a transgendered punk rocker from East Germany, the star, Loraine O'Donnell, shot a look of incredible potence into the assembled audience.
That look, which no amount of makeup could have obscured, contained a huge swirl of emotions: fierce confidence, defiance, compassion, resilience, pride. It came at the end of a grueling journey for both the character and the performer, the latter of whom took on the role at a time of personal crisis and made her physical transformation into a very public affair.
Moments of genuine catharsis like the one that capped off O'Donnell's electric performance that evening, when a performer so inhabits her role that the audience forgets for a split-second that they are watching a play, don't come easy.
They result from the difficult work of becoming a foreign character -- a task both complicated and assisted in this case by O'Donnell's struggle to shed 35 pounds and reboot her professional life during the rehearsal process.
You couldn't tell whether that look came from Hedwig the character, for persevering through life of unfathomable adversity, or from O'Donnell the actor, for overcoming her own struggles to play a role some of her peers doubted she could pull off.
It doesn't really matter, because O'Donnell did not merely "pull off" one of the more surprising and adverturous casting challenges in recent memory. She nailed it. Those who expressed doubt about her potential, among whose number I count myself, may now eat crow.
The show, capably directed here by Michael Walline, was written and originally performed by John Cameron Mitchell with irresistible music and smart lyrics by Stephen Trask. It consists of a series of alternately woeful and hopeful musical vignettes about Hedwig's life stitched together by clever, melodramatic monologues.
Its title character, an East German expat who underwent a botched sex-change operation in order to escape her oppressive fatherland, only to encounter more pain and abandonment on the other side of the Atlantic, has been put many times through the wringer.
Our heroine is all too aware that tragedy makes for great drama and music, no less in punk than in Wagner, so she recounts the sad story of her life in various dive bars and hole-in-the-wall venues to half-interested and likely inebriated crowds.
As Hedwig, O'Donnell brings a powerful voice and a defiant attitude suffused with mordant wit and the merest touch of sentimentality. On opening night, her first forays into the punkier parts of the score seemed slightly unsteady. But she quickly overcame that tentativeness by midshow to fully inhabit Hedwig in all her prickly, irrepressible glory.
O'Donnell, being trained (sometimes only too well) in the styles and mannerisms of musical theater, occasionally lets her inner Ethel Merman slip past Hedwig's punk veneer. But that's part of the charm of the piece and part of what makes O'Donnell's performance a must-see for Hedwig fans and neophytes alike.
Backed by the gifted band BillyDraws2 and assisted by reluctant backup-singer/husband Yitzhak (in an excellent, hilarious performance by KerryKate Abel), O'Donnell has made the long-overdue Buffalo debut of "Hedwig" a show to remember.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Jan. 28
WHERE: Alt Theatre, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
TICKETS: $20 or $15 for students
INFO: 868-6847 or www.alttheatre.org