Andrew Lloyd Webber took on Tell Me on a Sunday in the late '70s shortly after Evita, trading his usual lyricist, Tim Rice (with whom he was having a spat), for Don Black, and exchanging the larger-than-life heroine of Evita for an ordinary young woman: Emma is an aspiring English hat designer who follows a boyfriend to New York, breaks up with him almost immediately, struggles with loneliness and boredom, and--after two more lovers betray her--decides to toughen up, New York-style, and engage in a casual affair wherein it's the man rather than Emma who is poised to be hurt.
This may not be deep material, but even a shallow puddle, from the right angle, can provide an opportunity for reflection, and Arizona Onstage presents the most probing production possible. This has something to do with the direct, no-nonsense direction of Kevin Johnson, but the show owes most of its success to the heartfelt work of Kristé Belt. Her Emma begins with an appealing, bright-eyed naiveté, yet she never seems like an idiot. She has poor taste in men, but she's not a glutton for punishment and can resolve to abandon a relationship when she sees it's doing her no good. "A New York girl wouldn't stand for this," she declares, and this is the story of how America hardens Emma, not entirely to her benefit.
This takes place in a sequence of nearly two-dozen songs without linking narrative; Belt carries the entire 90-minute show (including a tea break in the middle) on her own, nimbly swinging from excitement to bitterness and back again. She has a lovely voice, firm and bright throughout its range, and deftly acts each number, not merely singing it. She handles the upbeat numbers with aplomb, and can break your heart in the title song.
Noah Trimm's lighting can be oddly dim at times, but Robin Sweet's costumes perfectly evoke the late-1970s (the time of the action) without looking foolish. Khris Dodge leads the four-member piano-and-strings ensemble with the assurance we've come to expect from Arizona Onstage instrumentalists. Still, it's the wonderful Kristé Belt who really makes this show worthwhile and true.
Across town in Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series, Christopher Johnson is accomplishing a similar feat with more complicated material: He's the star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a quasi-punk musical about a quasi-transsexual German rock singer. The text is by John Cameron Mitchell; the music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask; and the fascinatingly peculiar energy is Johnson's own.
Hedwig started out as an East German "girlyboy" named Hansel who fell in with an American serviceman, his ticket out of Germany--if the two could get married, which was possible only if Hansel were a woman. The pragmatic boy underwent a sex-change operation, but it was botched, leaving the titular "angry inch" of flesh dangling between his legs.
Several trials and tribulations later, Hansel/Hedwig met a teenager named Tommy, whom Hedwig groomed into a successful if unstable rock star who built a huge career on the foundation of Hedwig's own songs.
At least that's the story as told by Hedwig in the course of rambling reminiscences and recriminations during a concert with her band, the Angry Inch, and her latest husband, a former Balkan female impersonator named Yitzhak (played with profound sadness by Danielle Dryer). But the script teases us with so many ambiguities that we're left wondering if Tommy is merely a figment of Hedwig's imagination, or vice versa. Hedwig's song "The Origin of Love" recounts the passage in Plato's Symposium telling how people were originally fashioned in pairs joined at the back--male-male, female-female, male-female--but they were separated by the jealous gods, and now Hedwig seeks her soulmate, someone who will join her front to front. There are also references to Eve's creation via being ripped from Adam's body and, for good measure, to Berlin being cut in half by that notorious wall. So how far do we carry the idea of Hedwig/Tommy unity, or duality? The LTW production, deftly directed by Shana Nunez, seems to take its own stand at the end, but even that is open to interpretation.
Besides Dryer, the tiny stage is populated by a four-piece band, but it's Johnson's Hedwig, in wild wig and minidress, who spatters the space with an emotional cocktail of rage, insolence and yearning. Like most good actors, Johnson usually brings a recognizable, individual manner to all of his roles, but here, especially when he sings, he seems to be drawing on new inner resources. Johnson's Hedwig can be a nasty piece of work, but she's as vulnerable to heartbreak as Belt's Emma.
Complaining that a punk-derived musical is loud is as foolish as griping that the sky is blue, but the audio balance does need to be tweaked just a bit to make Johnson's and Dryer's voices more easily comprehensible. The song lyrics contain important information, and Johnson and Dryer sing them very well, but a few too many details get crunched in the necessary aural assault.
As freakish as Hedwig may seem, and as unremarkable as Emma appears, both characters are undertaking a deeply affecting, deeply wounding search for love. Each show is compelling, even tragic, in its own way.
And each spotlights its star's fabulous legs. What more could we want?