“Bon Soir! Bon Soir! Here we are at the pride of St. Tropez—the envy of the cabaret world, the jewel of the Riviera! Only Champagne from now until the end of the finale…” thus we are greeted by our host, “Georges” as he welcomes us into his establishment, “La Cage Aux Folles”, in the vibrant Tony Award Winning musical of the same name that, not coincidentally, is the current production on the mainstage of the “The Long Beach Playhouse” in Long Beach California. Featuring a score by theater legend Jerry Herman (renowned for his celebrated scores of “Hello Dolly”, “Mame”, and “Dear World”,) the book is by Harvey Fierstein (Based on the play by Jean Poiret); while the Director for this new staging is Sean F. Gray, with Choreography by Phie Mura and Musical Direction by Stephen Olear.
“It’s rather gaudy but it’s also rather grand; and while the waiter pads your check, he’ll kiss your hand…” we’re appraised of this incontrovertibly one-of-a-kind locale, by none other than the great “Zaza”—also known (when he’s out of “drag”) as “Georges” long-time life partner, “Albin”. In this endearing and often downright hysterical musical farce, we find that life is most ‘alive’ when you standup and have the courage to ‘shout out loud ‘Hey World, I Am What I Am’–and that families, even those that seem the most unusual, can come in all forms. Likewise, “Different”, doesn’t mean they aren’t filled with love! The story not only peers into the back-stage happenings at the titular St. Tropez drag nightclub, but also into the lives of its owner “Georges”, and “Albin”, the club’s headliner also known as “Madame Zaza”!
After twenty years together, the two have their self -esteem and devotion to one another challenged when “Jean-Michel”, “Georges” 21-year-old son by a (passing) heterosexual dalliance, abruptly announces his impending marriage to “Anne Dindon”–a girl who also happens to be the daughter of “Edouard Dindon”—an ultraconservative, right-wing politician and the ‘ Deputy General Of The T.F.M.” (short for the “Tradition, Family and Morality” party.) We also soon discover that “Dindon” is a man hell-bent on removing from St. Tropez such ‘Transvestite’ establishments as their infamous nightclub! Reluctantly agreeing to “Ditch some of the ‘dramatic ironies’ of their décor” and pose as “normal” to meet the family of the bride-to-be, “Albin” (sworn to his ‘best’ behavior and to be introduced as “Dear Uncle Albert”,) selflessly finds he must quickly alter the plans, so that he himself winds-up masquerading as the boy’s absent mother! While his plan doesn’t exactly work out the way he had hoped, it does lead to hilarious results at this already scandalously eccentric “Cage Of Crazies”!
Herman’s buoyant score is considered by many to be his very best–at turns bubbly and witty, then agonizingly powerful, containing such toe-tapping favorites as “With You On My Arm” and “The Best Of Times Is Now”; the lovely “Song On The Sand”; several whimsical lyric-driven ditty’s like “Put A Little More Mascara On” and the titular “La Cage Aux Folles” (“You go alone and have the evening of your life, you’ll meet your mistress and your boyfriend and your wife…”) and the stunningly forceful declaration, “I Am What I Am”. That this latter tune has become something of an anthem for the LGBT community is hardly surprising, given verses stating: “It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in–My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in! Life’s not worth a Damn, ‘til you can say, ‘Hey World! I am what I AM!’” Yet there’s also the second act’s “Look Over There”, which arguably gives the show an even wider-ranging ubiquity and identifiability beyond to just those involved with the LGBT community. Sung when “Georges”, about having had his fill of his son’s attitude, sings to him a gentle but striking reminder of every crucial thing “Albin” has done for the lad: “When your world spins too fast, and your bubble has burst—someone put himself last, so that you could come first.” In essence, the message this song contains concerning what two parents are willing to go through to ensure the happiness of their son is something that even the staunchest reactionary or narrowest mind, can identify with and support.
This new production at “The Long Beach Playhouse” is a more intimate interpretation of this solid audience favorite, while still maintaining (and doing justice) to all the elements that made it so unforgettable and groundbreaking to begin with. Performed with a ‘thrust’ type of staging that’s not-quite-in-the round, (it actually has ¾ of the action played out in the center of the auditorium with the audience seated in front of, and on the sides around it,) a formal proscenium stage is situated against the far back wall. Director Gray also incorporates some amiable bits of audience interaction here and there, with many of the entrances and exits occurring all through the auditorium and up the aisles. The musical accompaniment is kept fairly simple, with an 8-piece band sequestered off-stage right, but they get the job done (and then some,) conducting the music much in the same way a smaller establishment, the kind of which is portrayed here, honestly would have. Kudos also go to Ms. Miura’s invigoratingly re-envisioned choreography—most notably for the way she places smaller bits of dance and movement into the most unexpected, but masterful and shrewd places. The jubilant and sporty opening, “We Are What We Are” is staged like a “Miss Universe” beauty pageant with all the ‘girls’ strutting their stuff in a grand promenade, before launching into a breezy Jazz-dance break. Afterward, she infuses a fleeting phrase in which two ‘Cagelles’ dressed like horses ‘tap’ out a few snappy exchanges, consequently affording twice as much delicious variety into this already dynamic spectacle. Then there’s the jaunty little waltz between father and son as part of “With Anne On My Arm”, before the girl in question herself swiftly appears, elevating it into a dapper (but brief) pas-de-deux between Jean-Michel and his new Fiancée that culminates the number. Never shortchanged either are the bigger, “group’ undertaking such as the extended titular extravaganza, “La Cage Aux Folles”, which starts out somewhat simply with “Zaza” acting as our Host-ess, until “Jacqueline”–Proprietress of “Chez Jacqueline” and a friend to our heroes, jumps in, making for a lively duet. When the tempo changes to a sultry tango, the back curtain opens revealing a bird-cage pattern on the hindmost flat, from which the “Cagelles”–done-up like bright and colorful birds who are essentially ‘set free’, ‘prance’ through the auditorium, until a now very ‘Marlene Dietrich’-esque “Zaza” reappears in a white tie, tails and matching top hat. Post intermission, as part of “The Best Of Times Is Now”, the assembled ‘brood’ perform a nifty ‘cake walk’ as the number builds and builds to an uproarious (–literally) climax (–they don’t come any more delightful than this veritable crowd-pleaser!) As befits any Jerry Herman show, the finale is also wonderfully excessive, consisting of a quick recapitulation of all the scores’ best songs in rapid succession—this time as “Georges” (a few ‘political’ jabs in tow,) presents the ‘newer members’ of his ensemble (I.E. the Dindons in disguise, by which they hope to make their ‘escape’ from the press who have gathered outside.) This sees ‘Albin’s” flighty ‘handmaiden’, “Jacob” too, decked out in red as a Spanish ‘Signorita” called “Jacobina”—the temptress of the tropics (“Sugar and spice and everything Vice!” Georges exhorts); “Anne”, (now called “Anne-genue”,) alongside “Jean-Michel”–both in Greek Togas cast as “Venus” and “Adonis”; “Mme. Dindon”, swathed as “Ave Maria” with her dance of the veils (“A siren for every season and a surprise for every sense!” our M.C. continues.) Nonetheless, nothing can prepare you for what M. Dindon comes out looking like!
Shepherding all the escapades and leading the cast is Noah Wagner as the temperamental, but ultimately lovable, “Albin” and his glamourous stage-persona, the “one and only ‘Zaza’!” Wagner’s overall approach tends toward a peculiar mix of “Truman Capote” meets “Tallulah Bankhead” (with plenty of “Bette Midler” thrown in for excellent measure!) He also has gifted comic timing, which is indispensable to this part because he has all the very best ‘gag lines’: “Our baby is getting married! Where did we go wrong?!” ‘Albin’ moans; “Snakes live male and female together! Cats live male and female together! We are human beings—we know better!” In Act Two, as “Albin” is learning how to slouch (–like any real man) he makes the most of what is a playful and totally raucous scene. Perhaps the utmost testament to his performance here though, lies in how you’ll have a ball just watching him as both “Albin” and “Zaza”–the more flamboyant he is in either role, the better he is! He also possesses a nice ‘throaty’ vocal timbre which is evidenced as he goes into his initial descant, “Put A Little More Mascara On”. In a ‘cotton-candy pink’ tinged wig and so much make-up his face glows, his inceptive entrance also utilizes some inventive staging wherein he summarily ‘transforms’ right before our eyes into a 30’s era ‘Siren’ or ‘Screen Goddess’ the likes of ‘Jean Harlow” or “Mae West”, as “Albin is tucked away and ‘Zaza’ is here!” Then, in leading the extended “La Cage Aux Folles” musical sequence, he keeps things “festive” and “flirty”, which makes what is to follow all the more potently poignant—but oh, so worth waiting for! After being told that he won’t be a part of Jean-Michel’s anticipated “family” dinner, Wagner’s climactic “I Am What I Am” (as he’s symbolically and portentously clad in a ‘rainbow-lamé ‘A-line’ Gown,) is overflowing with shock, devastation, and betrayal, then gradually intense pride and defiance, building into the awesome showstopper it’s meant to be.
As his partner “Georges”, Stephen Alan Carver favors us with a tad “Puckish”, but highly energetic, showman ebulliently welcoming us to “The 15th Edition” of his club’s “World Famous Revue”. His foremost “bona-fide” solo occurs when, having gotten the news of his son’s impending nuptials, he tries to break the news to his often-petulant partner in the most palatable way possible, and he does it by means of “With You On My Arm”. His next opportunity to really dazzle follows shortly after, with “Song On The Sand”—sung to a real live ‘on-set’ accordion accompaniment (–which itself looks and sounds every bit as breathtaking as you think it would!) Quite feasibly one of the finest love songs ever written for a musical, Carver’s lush and romantic rendition resolutely scores a musical bullseye!! In Act Two, his diplomacy is once again put to the test as he tries to unruffle “Albin’s” easily ruffled psyche: “You are wanted,” “George” assures his indignant paramour; “It’s all that you bring with you that’s questionable.” Subsequently when a very high-strung “Jean Michel” is getting to be a bit much, Carver’s handling of the disarmingly sagacious, “Look Over There” is brilliantly underplayed, allowing the truth and emotion infused within its lyrics to resound that much more effectively. Together with Wagner, their “With You On My Arm” is a pleasant, frisky, duet early on; then later, when they kick-off the second act with a lovely reprise of “Song On The Sand”, they furnish some top-flight harmony in the process. Furthermore, their shared hymn to “Masculinity” (immediately following,) is as boot-stomping and pulse-pounding as it is side-splitting–earning maximum laughs (–again predominantly gratis Wagner’s reactions,) as “Georges” tries to ‘teach’ “Albin” to act against his nature and essentially ‘man up’ in preparation of the Dindon’s fast-encroaching visit: “Pick up that knife and make believe it’s a machete,” he dictates; “It’ll take all your strength and steady nerves for ‘hacking’ your way through the cherry preserves!”
Possessing boyish good looks reminiscent of Harry Styles or Justin Bieber (–only with genuine acting and singing talent,) John Vann offers standout support as “Jean-Michel”. Vann has a crisp, clarion, voice with a powerful delivery which he displays at the outset singing “With Anne On My Arm”, then, during his eleventh-hour reprise of “Look Over There”, which gives us the consummate and concluding taste of his considerable vocal talent. Matching him step-for-step is Kyra Olschewske, who brings a pretty, fresh-faced appeal as “Anne Dindon”. When we first see her, it’s as the heart of a moment of ‘heightened reality’ infused into “With Anne On My Arm”, which has this handsome young couple engaging in a lovely waltz, helping to make the entire number a truly winning endeavor. As a pair, both she and Vann give the palpable impression of wholesomeness and likeability, and while they admittedly may be cast into co-starring roles, they categorically make the most of (–and are the most memorable in–) whatever time they have before the footlights (not to mention they look amazing together while doing it!) Conversely, practically oozing sanctimoniousness and intolerance, Rick Kopps also makes a stupendous mark as the gruff and dour Politician “Edouard Dindon”. Although, he doesn’t appear until Act Two, his strong presence makes up for any lost time. So too, although his singing is also pretty much limited to a few verses in the “Cocktail Counterpoint” and “The Best Of Times Is Now”, he’s comparably distinguished ‘doubling’ in early scenes as the Café owner, “M. Renaud”, and it’s through this prior guise that he provides commendable back-up for “Masculinity”. Moreover, although his “M. Dindon” is suitably (even laudably) far from likeable, he is behind one of the shows biggest unrestrained belly-laughs when, sporting a huge horned helmet (–yes, you heard that right,) he’s disguised as “Winhilda”– “The ‘woman’ NO man could possibly ignore. (One look and you never forget her face…hard as you try!)” Amanda Webb also makes the most of an otherwise too easily overlooked role—that of “Anne’s” Mother and “Edouard’s” ever-patient wife, “Marie Dindon”, painting her as sweet-natured but repressed and marginalized by her overbearing husband. (Preceding this, she too appears as Café Co-owner, “Mme. Renaud”.) Webb can similarly boast a stunning vocal ability which makes one wish she were given increased opportunities to show it off; when she does though, it’s always a gratifying experience, such as with “Mme. Dindon’s ” part amid the rapid-fire “Cocktail Counterpoint”, sung in four-part harmony (–something of a tradition in Herman’s shows;) and when she surprisingly interjects her voice into “The Best Of Times Is Now”.
Also helping to keep things fresh and unpredictable, this production has cleverly ‘enhanced’ or ‘reconceived’ several key characters, as is the case with Austin James’ take on “Jacob”—the “Butler” (who thinks of himself as the “Maid”.) His is a sort of winking homage to Chita Rivera’s “Spanish Rose” or “Anita” (from “Bye-Bye Birdie” and “West Side Story” respectively,) as opposed to William Thomas Jr. (who created the role in “La Cage’s” original Broadway cast.) In fact, his “Jacob” spends more time in drag than does “Albin’—debuting in a glittery green gown and purple feather-boa (–and that’s just for starters!) That is, until the big ‘dinner’ at which time he re-emerges donned in an elegant (if ostentatious) 18th Century waste-coat, knee-breeches neck-frills and powdered wig. Nori T. Schmidt also does a tremendous job as the slightly Sapphic, Restauranteur “Jacqueline” (“Chere Jacqueline”, as our protagonists ‘affectionately’ call her, with barely a note of sarcasm.) In judiciously painting her as a bubbly, irrepressible lipstick lesbian who loves to be where the action is, grants this ostensibly ‘ancillary’ figure far greater resonance—for this show especially! She also garners significant laughs from “Jacqueline’s” repeated attempts to ‘commandeer’ several numbers like “The Best Of Times Is Now” and the titular “La Cage Aux Folles”. Special applause is equally due for Musical Director Stephen Olear who also pulls double-duty as the roving “Accordion Player”, supplying his own melodic embellishments at just the right times throughout the proceedings.
Then there are the “Notorious and Dangerous” “Les Cagelles”–seven in all; four with a Y chromosome; three without —each something to behold; each giving off glimpses of some facetious, fanciful (–and decidedly distinctive) personalities in their own right! (Look closely enough too, and you may find some of them don’t even have a Five O’Clock Shadow!) Although in closer confines such as this, the trick of figuring out “just who is who and what is what” (Male or Female) isn’t so much of a challenge, to credit each one individually would be to rob audience members from playing this jolly little guessing game on their own, hence diminishing one of the most enjoyable aspects of seeing it. Regardless of their gender though, the main thing is that they too, all seem to be having an absolutely magnificent time there on-stage with everything they’ve been called upon to do, so don’t be alarmed if you find yourself having one right along with them! Among them, are “Chantal”—the ‘Songbird Of Avignon’—the “Triller’ from “Manilla”, who contributes ‘her’ thrilling, ‘trilling’ falsetto to “Georges” precursory rant; the boisterous, whip-wielding wonder, “Hanna From Hamburg” (“Men call her Diva; women call her Devil…Police call her daily!” we’re told.) “Phaedra, the Enigma”: “All the fortunes of the Pharaohs; all the cash from the Casbah cannot buy the secret of her fatal charm!” In addition, there’s “Angelique”, “Monique”, “Bittelle” and “Mercedes”. Even in their introduction, they set the stage for what we can expect–whether it be from the story, the songs, the club, or (not least of which,) from they, themselves: “We are what we are and what we are is an illusion;” they inform us straight away; “We love how it feels putting on heels causing confusion. We face life though it’s sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter; face life, with a little guts and lots of glitter…”
The vivacious scenic design by Greg Fritsche makes remarkable use of the Mainstage’s sizable auditorium, with the physical “stage” set against the back wall. Painted in various vivid hues and framed by a deep blue “Peacock feather” patterned proscenium (–again with the symbolism!) on either side of it is a mural depicting the St. Tropez coastline. At the far (opposite) end of the performance area, are placed two small tables, each with as many chairs, which will be employed at various intervals in the on-stage exploits. Complimenting this is Matthew Mikulka’s often prismatic lighting designs which administer splashes of pastel colors to the musical and dance interludes as needed. However, for this show in particular, it’s the multifarious costumes by Christina Bayer that rightfully (and blatantly) grab the spotlight and hold on to it. Indeed, there’s so many costume changes to be reckoned with, another major part of the fun of this show lies in all the imaginative, ‘fashion-forward’ costumes seen in it! Also to Ms. Bayer’s credit, are the subtle but persistent hints as to the times the show is set in—obviously taking their cues from Poiret’s original play and the comedic blockbuster that sprang from it—both taking place in the 1970’s. From “Jean-Michel’s” polyester trousers or “Jacqueline’s” body-hugging red-fringe shift-dress, to Anne’s pale-azure skirt and sweater combination, or her father’s mildly oversized ties, if you’ve got the vague feeling you’ve seen apparel like these on some old episode of “The Brady Bunch” or “Partridge Family”, you’re probably right. These are merely trifling though, when compared to the gowns and frocks worn by “Albin” and “Jacob”, which could only be considered ‘adequate’ were you ‘Liberace’! (Bayer’s even devised a flaming-red “Hello Dolly” inspired gown with a matching feathered headdress for “Albin” as one of his outfits in the big “La Cage Aux Folles” spectacle–and this is to say nothing of his “Baby Jane” get-up, complete with a rainbow swirled lollypop”!) Amplifying their effect are the synonymously ‘over-the-top’ Make-up designs (also critical for a production like this) by Lolo Pisani. Were there any doubt, just try to picture “Zaza” or any of “Les Cagelles” with any less, or even simply “toned down’–let alone, (–God forbid–) not any, face-powder, colored eyeshadow, or blush. So vital are these, “Albin’s” preliminary ode is even dedicated to them!
‘The Best Of Times Is Now’—to head out to “The Long Beach Playhouse”, where “Everything’s ravishing, sensual—fabulous” at “La Cage Aux Folles”! Having opened on June 29th, this ‘mad extravaganza’ will play through August 3rd, 2019 at “The Long Beach Playhouse” located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street in Long Beach CA. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; Tickets may be obtained on-line by logging onto: http://www.lbplayhouse.org/tickets/box-office ; or via phone by calling the theater box-office at: (562) 494-1014, Wednesdays through Saturdays between the hours of 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM; (On performance nights, phone hours are until 7:00 PM) and select Sundays (when there is a matinee) from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM. Special discounts for Seniors, Students and Groups of 10 or more are also available for this engagement.
Production Stills by Michael Hardy, Courtesy Of “The Long Beach Playhouse; Special Thanks To Madison Mooney, Sean F. Gray, Phie Mura, Stephen Olear, And To The Cat And Crew Of “The Long Beach Playhouse’s” 2019 Production Of “La Cage Aux Folles” For Making This Story Possible.