The Boston Globe

Jonathan Perry, Globe Correspondent
May 12, 2006
Page: D18 Section: Arts

There is a big difference, Gene Dante says, between rockers who can act and actors who think they can rock.

"Rockers who act? Bowie. Actors who rock? Hasselhoff that's the difference," says Dante, a reflexive cringe creeping into his voice over the phone from Puerto Rico when other dubious actor-turned-rocker efforts are mentioned: Bruce Willis. Don Johnson. Leonard Nimoy. Dante, a musician and actor who grew up around Boston, left for New York, and recently moved back, is perhaps best known around these parts for his title role in the Boston production of the rock musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," in which he channeled an East German glam-rock star struggling with the aftermath of a botched sex-change operation.

But Dante identifies himself as a musician first a rocker who can act who previously fronted the under ground Boston pop outfit Bound.4.Venus. He's just issued an EP, "Gene Dante and the Future Starlets," which makes the convincing case that his androgynous off-Broadway alter ego indeed left her mascara'd mark on the singer-songwriter.

"Hedwig is very Bowie and Lou Reed-inspired, and just hearing the music, I knew I wanted to be in that show, and I wanted to play that part," recalls Dante, who drew raves for his performances. "It was the type of music I wanted to write and sing. Just as Bowie, Reed, Bryan Ferry, and even Queen and Kiss had left their stamp on me when I was a very young boy, I knew Hedwig would leave her stamp on me, too."

Over the course of eight tracks, covering nearly 30 minutes, Dante distills his lifelong crush on glam's eyeliner-rimmed epoch into an astoundingly accurate appropriation of the "Ziggy Stardust" era. Tracks such as "The Crack in Your Glass Slipper," "A Method to His Madness," and most obviously, "Spaceager," gleam with glitter-encrusted splendor. Meanwhile, Dante's stage-trained croon carries the DNA of Bowie and Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter.

Dante and the Future Starlets which include guitarist Eddie Nowik and upright bassist "Dark" Mark White (both from the Boston avant-weirdo octet the Bentmen) and drummer "Cutty" (from Reverend Bob and the Darkness) celebrate the EP's release tonight at the Middle East Upstairs with guests the Glass Set, the Sterns, and Ad Frank and the Fast Easy Women.

"As a kid, I found it much easier to identify with and be fascinated by rockers than actors, because with a rocker I merely need the music and maybe a picture to lock in," says Dante, whose close relationship with guitars and makeup dates back to his grade-school days, when his aunt bought him his first LPs, Kiss' "Alive II" and Queen's "News of the World." "As a writer in a rock band, you certainly have much more of a personal connection with the material because it's yours."

In theater, where an actor's job is to convincingly interpret someone's else's vision, "you have to contrive that [personal connection]," he says.

After his success as Hedwig, and well-received performances as Riff Raff in a European tour of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," the title role of the Beast in a stage production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," and work with the Boston Rock Opera, Dante moved to New York. Although the goal was to further his acting career, he wound up taking more bartending shifts than acting classes. All along he kept writing pop songs and later realized he could write them just as easily here.

"I had acting friends who would wear [business] billboards on their back, and I realized quickly I didn't want that," Dante says. "I don't believe in doing the Andrew Lloyd Webber medley on the Pacific Princess cruise line just because I'm an actor who can sing and dance. I believe in reading a script and asking whether I believe in it whether or not it's going to get me seen. When it was evident that acting wasn't working out, I moved back no worries, no regrets, and no what-ifs."

Not surprisingly, Dante's theater experience colors what he's doing with the Future Starlets: restoring to rock the showmanship and spectacle that, he believes, is all too often missing.?
"Too many rockers neglect the execution of what truly is theater. They don't want to say [the word] because theater has such a negative, namby-pamby connotation of putting on a show and putting on a front," he says. ". . . But when people come out to see you and are paying money, you owe them something."