The rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" concerns itself with the reconciliation of polar opposites -- masculinity and femininity, East and West, alienation and acceptance. The first Central Florida production of the show, which begins a six-week performance run this Friday, July 5, in the Footlights Theatre at The Parliament House, likewise represents a potential link between two divergent elements: the past and future of its star, David Lee.
A prime mover in the Orlando theatrical underground of a decade ago, Lee has taken a break from his latter-day work as a director and theater professor in New York City to assume the role of the gender-scrambled punk-rock diva Hedwig.
"I think I wanted to have a kind of a working vacation this summer," says Lee. "There's a lot about Orlando that I miss."
A graduate of the University of Miami, Lee came to local prominence in the early 1990s as a director at Theatre Downtown and the artistic director of the Per4mAnts, a theater company he founded with some fellow U. of M. alumni. The troupe was based at Big Bang, a now-defunct downtown venue co-owned by drag toastmistress Sam "Miss Sammy" Singhaus. The shows the Per4mAnts put on at Big Bang -- including "Psycho Beach Party" and a staging of "Women Behind Bars" starring Michael Wanzie -- were quick to sell out.
"We could only fit, like, 40 or 50 chairs there," Lee remembers.
Lee further indulged his muse at the Civic Theatres of Central Florida and in the first Orlando International Fringe Festival, to which the Ants contributed "Aunt Vanya," a cross-gender take on Chekhov. Though Lee assumed occasional on-stage duties, his focus had shifted from acting to directing. In 1993, he enrolled at Yale University to earn a master's degree in the latter discipline.
Since then, Lee has returned home periodically to direct shows at the Civic and other area locales. But instead of moving back full-time after graduation, he put down roots in the Big Apple, founding a theater company, Ant Farm Productions, that recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
"When I saw "Hedwig" in New York, I knew that it was something I wanted to do," Lee says. He saw a certain degree of himself in the character, including growing up in a fatherless home and years spent living in a trailer park.
"Before [the character's] sex-change operation, the lives were pretty similar," he assesses.
Lee says he exploited his Manhattan contacts to help secure performance rights for Kenny Howard and Margaret Nolan, who are co-producing The Parliament House production. (Howard is also directing.) Theirs is the first of at least five attempts at a local "Hedwig" to reach fruition.
The show reunites Lee with Per4mAnt Becky Fisher, who plays Yitzak, the outwardly male foil to "Hedwig's" faux-Farrah routine. It was Fisher who convinced Lee that "Hedwig" would be a more fun summer project than the "serious" play he had initially considered. But first he had to make a courtesy call to Singhaus, who had been tapped to star in one of the show's ill-fated Orlando forays, and had even made a handful of public appearances around town as the Hedwig character. After assuring Lee that he "wasn't stepping on [Sam's] drag pumps," Singhaus offered his services as a keyboardist and his sister-in-law, Marcie, as the show's costume designer. He also recommended the glam-rock outfit Zoa -- which has played gigs at a smattering of clubs and theaters since its formation late last year -- to perform as Hedwig's backup band, the Angry Inch. That referral solved a major dilemma that Lee describes thus:
"How are we going to find four people who can all play instruments -- and all have cars to take those instruments to an unnamed location where we're going to rehearse -- then make it sound as if they've been playing together for any length of time?" The results have pleased Lee. "It's been really fun merging and creating one unit," he praises.
He's equally satisfied with The Parliament House, which has apparently welcomed this Hedwig with open arms by offering free rehearsal time and paying for the show's float in the June 29 Central Florida Pride Parade.
"In a way, that place is very similar to the entire town of Orlando" in its modern-day embracing of theater, Lee says. In the Per4mAnts era, "it was very difficult to get support and space. Now, it seems that the community and the city are a lot more behind that kind of activity."
He points to the new Church Street home of the Orlando Youth Theatre, for whom Lee is also directing a production of "Little Shop of Horrors" during his current stay. With such harbingers of the long-promised theater district taking shape, he may even be tempted to abandon his job at Marymount Manhattan College, where he has taught for two years, and come home for good.
"It's an adjunct position," Lee says. "To leave it wouldn't be that difficult. I'm thinking about coming back here if I can snag that new artistic-director position at the Civic Theatres." He laughs wickedly.
The endless summer vacation?
"Could be. You have to go away to realize what you had."