TAMPA — Jobsite Theater and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the season opener, share a 20th anniversary. The show debuted Off-Broadway in 1998. Jobsite opened the same year, and first performed the rock musical five years ago at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for Performing Arts, where the theater is based.
Opening night brought out a lively crowd that surely included a share of repeat customers. The laughs came quicker than might be expected, the cheers louder. Some in the audience danced in their seats during the show’s many driving, pulsating numbers, or even sang along faintly to lyrics they knew by heart. That energy alone gave the production a lift, which performers seemed keen to reciprocate.
This they did, aided by a four-piece band led by Florida Bjorkestra founder Jeremy Douglass. Hedwig, a story about a transgender singer-songwriter recounting a life story full of bad breaks, developed before its debut in New York drag bars, carries that club ambiance into performance. The nontraditional structure also feels like a series of bits elongated into a musical, with one key backstory added late.
The story by John Cameron Mitchell, who also played the title role for several years, weaves in the requisite campy humor ("When Luther proposed, I was on my knees..."), but Spencer Meyers as Hedwig in this production got the biggest laughs with arch asides to random patrons. A walkway extending from the stage allowed Meyers numerous opportunities to interact with the audience, whether by touching an outstretched hand or grinding her patent leather boot into the lap of a man in the front row.
Meanwhile, the Obie-winning music and lyrics by Stephen Trask do as much work as the script to advance the story, as well as give the show its emotional edge. Meyers and Amy Gray, also his co-star in 2013 as Hedwig’s second husband Yitzhak, voice the occasional lines of several characters who factor into a plot that is more complex than it lets on. These two have played opposite each other as couples multiple times before, and show an easy familiarity with each other on stage. This time they’re both essentially in drag (although the traditionally female casting of Yitzhak is more a statement about gender ambiguity than anything anatomical).
Like Hedwig’s costumes (artfully designed by Katrina Stevenson), the material in this show runs several layers deep. Hedwig came into the world in East Berlin as Hansel, a "slip of a girlyboy" who fell for an American G.I. They marry with plans to live in the United States, and toward that end Hansel undergoes sex-reassignment surgery. It doesn’t go well (leaving an "angry inch") but the resulting identity crisis fuels some thought-provoking ruminations about sexuality. By the second song (the whole thing is structured as a concert in the cocktail lounge of a Midwestern steakhouse) The Origin of Love, the show’s deeper threads have emerged in an alternate Garden-of-Eden scenario, in which three peaceful sexes were reduced by the gods to two. This "operation," as Hedwig tells the audience, leaves "a pain that cuts a straight line through the heart; we call it love."
A year later she’s divorced and broke in Kansas, babysitting and tricking on side (Mitchell modeled the character around a childhood babysitter who also worked as a prostitute). Hedwig sings a bluesy countryish song, Sugar Daddy, as black-and-white animations play out on screens of retro cartoons and commercials for Tootsie Roll Pops. I’m not sure how deeply we’re supposed to take the animations, seeing as you can’t really study them and also watch performers.
Hedwig has talent as a songwriter, and proof lies in the success of a former boyfriend who stole her material. She’s not intended to be a stellar singer, but even with that, Meyers showed an uneasy relationship with pitch. He did his best work as a storyteller in a series of compelling monologues. True to the script, Gray as Yitzhak shines as a very fine singer and also plays Hedwig’s verbally abused spouse with grace. The show, which also ran on Broadway in 2014, has survived on its universality delivered through unlikely characters. And that relatability ought to tell us something about ourselves.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.