ORLANDO – Anyone who has ever caught a gay-themed musical comedy at this city’s Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival is well aware that these shows can be campy, over-the-top and consistently hilarious.
A perfect example from last May’s Fringe was “Gay Bar Star: Return from the Big House,” featuring Janine Klein doing a cabaret-style mix of showtunes and a laugh-every-two-seconds monologue about how this self-proclaimed “wild Jewish diva” — who once sang at the Parliament House’s Footlight Theatre — now finds herself singing behind bars – at the 33rd Street Jail. Our diva might know hardship, humiliation and disappointment, but she also knows how to make it all consistently funny.
I think it says something about the very different perspective that Americans and Europeans have toward gay musicals when you compare “Gay Bar Star” and its overall outlook to that of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the 1998 rock musical. It’s about a rock and roll band fronted by an East German transgendered lead singer. Written by John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the story is loosely based on Mitchell’s life as the son of a U.S. Army Major general who once commanded the U.S. sector of occupied West Berlin.
Originally an Off-Broadway musical, the show has since been performed all over the world. The play opens with a rousing rock number, “Tear Me Down,” and then Hedwig begins a kind of stream-of-conscious monologue with the audience that’s bitchy, catty, self-deprecating, foul-mouthed and filled with plenty of sexual innuendos – and hilarious. It has the feel of one of those familiar Fringe shows, offering a kind of wink-and-nod between the audience and the larger-than-life gay performer. Hedwig talks poignantly about the boredom of living in a tiny East Berlin apartment with his mother, and falling in love with great American singers – the likes of Captain and Tennille, for example, who captivated him with a classic like “Love Will keep Us Together.”
As the play goes on, though, it moves away from the goal of simply entertaining us with sublime gay camp humor — and ends up going in quite a few surprising directions. It’s a love story turned bitter, and even provides some history of the androgynous 1970s glam rock era of David Bowie and Lou Reed.
And as the songs range in style from rock to country to love ballads to punk, so too does the Hedwig’s saga have its roller-coaster emotional highs and lows. Hedwig falls for Luther, a U.S. soldier, and they decide to marry and leave communist East Germany for the West – except that the couple needs to be a man and a woman to marry, so Hedwig’s mother finds a doctor to perform a sex change. But the operation gets horribly botched.
Now living in Kansas, Hedwig has been dumped by Luther for another man, and she ends up forming a rock band, the Angry Inch. Hedwig channels much of her own personal angst, pain and suffering into their music.
In-between such rousing numbers as “Sugar Daddy” and “Wicked Little Town,” Hedwig carries the audience through the often very intimate details of an angst-filled life that’s at times humorous, harrowing, and depressing. As I said, if there’s one thing that marks this show as being quite different from other gay musicals, it’s the willingness of the author to take the audience on a much rockier emotional ride than they might initially expect. It packs a lot of emotion, in fact, into its 90 minutes.
“Hedwig,” which is now being revived at the Footlight Theatre, with performances on Saturday nights at 7:30 through July 28, has a very good band that includes John DeHass and Don Hopkins on keyboard, Matt Kamm on guitar, Mendle on drums and Michael Harrison on bass; but it packs a real wallop in the casting of Joshua Eads-Brown as Hedwig.
You could make note of the fact that Eads-Brown is a superb singer who can bring the entire house down when he belts out the songs and simply leave it at that; but the truth is, his skills as an actor – and comedian – are brilliantly on display here as well. Alternately witty, clever, introspective, and emotionally crushing, he ends up struggling to find some glimmer of hope to grasp onto, and carries us along with him, passionately hoping that he finds it. Eads-Brown turns Hedwig into a real tour de force (it doesn’t hurt that he adds some clever hilarious quips and references to Greater Orlando along the way.) He carries the entire show and he’s absolutely electrifying to watch.
Janine Klein also has a part here, as Hedwig’s backup singer Yitzhak, and my only complaint is that it’s largely a silent role. When she joins Eads-Brown and starts singing with him, the two of them are amazing to listen to. I left wishing Klein had been given a chance to employ her expert comedic skills as well.
“Hedwig” is an adventurous and brave open-wound kind of a show, not afraid to show the audience some ugly scars and defy the traditional concept of “entertainment.” In the hands of a master performer like Eads-Brown, it’s spellbinding.
The Footlight Theatre at the Parliament House is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. To learn more, log on to Wanziepresents.com.
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