We’re barely a month into the local theater season, but already the bar has been set pretty high for best show of the year with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The rock musical, produced masterfully by Tristan Tapscott (best known for his work as impresario of District Theater) and brilliantly acted by titular star Anthony Jade Natarelli, is a bravura production, doing the award-winning source material proud and presenting a show of rare entertainment and exquisite humanity.

For those who haven’t seen it or heard of it, “Hedwig,” which is making its area stage debut at Rock Island’s Speakeasy theater with this production, is an unrepentantly over-the-top musical and dramatic extravaganza about a transgender singer that explores themes of love, freedom, gender identity and social politics. Set amidst the transition and dichotomy of cold war Germany and the shifting social tides of America in the latter half of the 20th century, its title character is a prisoner in a world and body that betrays his heart and soul, and the character’s tragedy is that both conspire to prevent her full expression and transformation, instead ending up a physical and mental prison that she escapes only through artistic fulfillment.

It was critically acclaimed, showered by awards and a box office smash since its 1998 off Broadway debut, leading to its 2014 Broadway debut. Shocking perhaps due to its content, but nevertheless lauded for its sensitive and insightful portrayal of it and the depth of its characters, and given the mercurial nature of sexuality in modern times, with transgender people becoming more open in expressing themselves openly, it strikes the zeitgeist with particular resonance now.

Now, looking at that, you might expect “Hedwig” to be a really preachy snooze, one that hits you over the head with a mallet in regard to transgender rights and social politics. But it isn’t. If it was, “Hedwig” likely wouldn’t have gotten past a few critically-acclaimed months off-Broadway. The reason “Hedwig” has become such a huge success is because of its subtlety and humanity. It’s a genuinely entertaining show with plenty of charm and humor and it’s because of the relatability and likeability of the title character that audiences will find themselves sympathetic to that character’s situation. This is definitely a show with a message but its message, like all social messages, is about the individual trees and not just the forest. It’s about the people who are impacted by social change, and by choosing such an intriguing and charming character in Hedwig, the show is able to make an impact. You feel for her, you want her to be happy, and her tragic moments have all the more greater resonance and engender all the more sympathy because she genuinely gets to you.

The Tapscott production strikes the perfect chords on this blend. Without any gender politics whatsoever it’s a fantastically entertaining show – the music is fantastic and wonderfully presented and the characters, particularly Natarelli’s Hedwig, are vital and memorable.

When Natarelli isn’t singing his heart out he’s working the audience, sauntering down from the stage with campy charm. From the start, he has the audience in the palm of his hand, sometimes literally, as he wonderfully inhabits Hedwig, creating a memorable character that is not only indefatigable in spirit but uses humor and camp spectacle as both an escape and a lifeboat against a sea of pathos and always looming storms of depression. Natarelli, a versatile, dynamic performer, is well cast in the role, as his dark shadings hint at the deeper pain of Hedwig but his animated personality clicks with the flamboyant performance.

It’s this inherent likeability and entertaining nature that makes us so sympathetic to Hedwig and that touches us on a human level. While few of us certainly can relate directly to her predicament, we can all relate to dreams dashed and hearts broken, and the struggle to remain upbeat and happy in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. And so it is with Hedwig, who we grow to care about in her transparency and sincere quest for acceptance and love, something to which we can all relate.

While in a supporting role to the over-the-top Hedwig, Sara Wegener brings more opaque emotion and depth to Yitzhak, the yin (or is it yang?) to Hedwig’s yang (or is it yin?). Wegener’s disappointment and churning emotion is buried far deeper but is no less palpable and her brooding presence acts as a menacing counterbalance to the airy nature of Hedwig.

The overall concert element of the show is musically phenomenal and a draw in and of itself. Natarelli and Wegener are backed by a tight, potent band – Ian Farmer on guitar, Kyle Jecklin on bass and Peter Letendre on drums – that provide a nice sonic trampoline for Wegener’s and Natarelli’s aural gymnastics. Mike Turczynski’s lighting is nuanced in its dynamic range and Nici Bennett does a terrific job setting a glam stage with makeup, hearkening back to Lou Reed “Transformer” era in its straddling of goth and pomp, well in line with the thematic range of the show.

Done right, “Hedwig” is a beautifully crafted show, a tightrope walk of humor and pathos, humanity and cartoonish burlesque, and under Tapscott’s direction and production, it’s done with style and grace here. I realize it’s not saying much to claim that it’s the best show I’ve seen this year, given that we’re barely at the end of January. But it’s going to take a lot to knock it from that perch and no doubt it will still be at or near those heights come December. It’s a must-see, so make it out this weekend.

‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’
Doors open at 7, show begins at 8
Jan. 29-30
The Speakeasy, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island
Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door
The show is rated R for content and is for patrons 18-and-older only
Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2 for tickets

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'Hedwig' an early contender for best Quad Cities show of 2016
Sean Leary is an author, director, artist, musician, producer and entrepreneur who has been writing professionally since debuting at age 11 in the pages of the Comics Buyers Guide. An honors graduate of the University of Southern California masters program, he has written over 50 books including the best-sellers The Arimathean, Every Number is Lucky to Someone and We Are All Characters.