Trying to Find Love

Two plays opening in the new year feature conflicted characters in transition

Two unrelated guys named Johnson--Kevin and Christopher--will soon open intimate musical-theater shows about very confused, conflicted individuals. One of the characters is a woman. The other is, well, something it would be natural to be confused and conflicted about.

Kevin Johnson's Arizona Onstage Productions is gearing up for Tell Me on a Sunday, a one-woman show by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yes, the local producer who worships at the altar of Stephen Sondheim is actually bringing us something by the man responsible for Cats and--ugh--Starlight Express. But Kevin insists that he's not selling out. He likens developing a taste for this show to an experience he had last year in a Santa Fe, N.M., art gallery.

"I don't like the work of Georgia O'Keeffe--at all," he writes in an e-mail. "A big steaming pile. All those flowers that look like women's privates."

Yet Johnson was forced to accompany a VIP who had sponsored his appearance in Santa Fe to "the damn O'Keeffe Museum. I had to pay 15 bucks to walk through walls and walls of vaginas with petals and stems, holding a musk-splashed handkerchief to my nose the entire time. I hated this shit--always have, always will.

"Then I walked into another room. I wondered where I was. The same color palette, though muted, was there, the same brush energy. Yet I was totally shocked at what I saw: her architectural work. I had no idea. I saw so many untold stories in these buildings and sad skies, dirty windows and shadows on street corners. I was stunned, and asked one of the, 'Don't touch!' 200-year-old volunteers who the artist was. ... Oops!"

Similarly, Johnson first saw Tell Me on a Sunday in an English pub, and he was shocked to learn that this intimate, emotionally honest little work was composed by a man better known for glitzy megamusicals full of special effects that overshadow the music and characters.

Interestingly, the show being prepared by the other Johnson--Christopher Johnson, who runs the late-night Etcetera series at Live Theater Workshop--was once produced in little rock clubs. But this Johnson had no qualms whatsover about the show's creators, John Cameron Mitchell (text) and Stephen Trask (lyrics and music).

It's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and "angry inch" is both the name of Hedwig's band and the bit of flesh left dangling between Hedwig's legs after a botched sex-change operation.

"Hedwig is what I would call a 'gender queer,'" says Christopher. "That's somebody who doesn't identify as just gay or straight or feminine or masculine--the identity is all those things."

Christopher was in his mid-teens when Hedwig came out; he drove all the way to Phoenix to see it eight years ago, and he's wanted to do the show ever since. Christopher admits that, although he's anatomically intact, he feels an affinity with Hedwig, describing himself as "an effeminate pussy hound who's been in a lot of long-term relationships with men."

Hedwig, he says, "is afraid of being a woman and afraid of being a man. Just being a human among other humans means losing parts of yourself and hating parts of yourself, and wanting to cut something out but not knowing what to put in its place. Hedwig is just attracted to other human beings, and is trying to find love."

Emma, the young English woman in Tell Me on a Sunday, is also trying to find love, and having a terrible time of it. It's the late 1970s, and she's just arrived in New York from England, without a green card, hoping to establish herself as a hat designer and a partner in a grand, long-term love affair--but she goes through four failed relationships in the course of 80 minutes. This is not the sort of feel-good story that the average Andrew Lloyd Webber fan would hope to see.

Kevin Johnson has cast Kristé Belt as Emma; she's been featured in Arizona Onstage's Lost and Sunday in the Park With George, and she had no desire to do Andrew Lloyd Webber until Kevin talked her into it.

"I wouldn't have done this if I hadn't found Kristé," he says. "She does her homework; she knows how to make really smart suggestions, and she can carry the evening, which is a lot to ask, especially when she's singing." Khris Dodge will direct a small, percussion-free instrumental ensemble.

Meanwhile, Johnson himself has taken on the role of Hedwig. "I was really scared to do it," he says. "It's not the sort of thing I usually do. I prepared by singing heavy-metal karaoke at The Bashful Bandit. Then we put together an amazing band, and our music director is a classically trained opera singer, Shana Nunez; she's been keeping Danielle Dryer (who's also in the cast) and me under control."

Over the past couple of years of preparation, Christopher has developed confidence in his ability to pull Hedwig off. "I was born to do this show, and we're going to tear the roof off that little building," he declares. "It's everything I like to do--it's filthy and sad and so much fun."

Adds Kevin, "It's got so much heart, too." Which is something he might well say about his own show.