The tempo of the overture’s tunes — familiar in music and long-memorized in words for many in the audience — quickens in direct proportion to the packed theatre’s palpable rise in energy level and anticipation. In a tease to an audience who to a person already knows where they are, the MC commands with glee, “Open your eyes, you have arrived at La Cage aux Folles.” And then the real magic begins, first in a mere whisper, next slowing building into a triumphant, emphatic, sung declaration: “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion.”
In bold, skimpy outfits of various black leathers, three queens of stage before us continue,
“We are what we are –
Half a brassiere, half a suspender.
Half real and half fluff,
You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.”
They are soon joined by tap-dancing sailorettes coming up two aisles, all singing and dancing with such fabulous exuberance that already the nightclub-size arena of the San Francisco Playhouse is about to explode in celebration. When the entire troupe bows low as part of a grand kick line, ‘guessing the gender’ becomes easier via the low necklines revealing those ‘queens’ whose breasts are not just stuffing. And so begins Harvey Fierstein’s (book) and Jerry Herman’s (music and lyrics) La Cage aux Folles in a production that once again is to prove that San Francisco Playhouse knows how to stage summertime musicals that soar in their excellence, ingenuity, and downright fun.
The household of Georges the dad, Albin the ‘mom,’ and Jean-Michel the son is as normal and every day as any in St. Tropez, France. After all, what is that unusual about two gay men (one a drag club owner/MC and the other the show’s drag star, Zaza) raising their son to now his handsome, young-twenties manhood? So what is the big deal if their household is actually controlled by a short-skirted, hip-swishing butler named Jacob who prefers being referred to as “the maid”? But when Jean-Michel arrives home with the news that he is getting married to a woman (oh my) and that her father is head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” (whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs), all hell breaks loose. That is especially the case when Albin hears he is being replaced by the boy’s real mother (a long-ago, one-night fling of Georges who never bothers to contact her son) at a dinner party where the two sets of parents are to meet. Albin a.k.a. Zaza is not about to go back into the closet and hide from the bigots about to become the new in-laws. What ensues makes those wacky plots and ploys of 1950s TV sitcoms like “I Love Lucy” seem tame.
The sparkling brilliance of Broadway veteran John Treacy Egan as Albin becomes immediately clear as he transforms before our eyes into the red-lipped, big-bosomed Zaza with inch-long (at least) eyelashes while singing in increasingly excited breaths, “A Little More Mascara.” Mr. Egan’s many comedic abilities come alive in the scores of ways he uses every facial muscle, every head and hair flip, and every body twist and turn to express surprise, scorn, spite, or whatever emotion Albin feels more than ready to express. When in white wig and shimmering gown he leads the club’s equally decked-out queens in “La Cage aux Folles,” the dancers reign supreme in high kicks, stunning splits, and stage-conquering cartwheels (all magnificently choreographed by Kimberly Richards) while Zaza channels Carol Channing, Carol Burnett, and even Bea Arthur as Zaza belts supreme with much humor, pomp, and full voice. Then when delivering the musical’s well-known (and primo gay anthem worldwide) “I Am What I Am,” Mr. Egan reaches even deeper to let loose an Act One finale that brings tears and cheers galore.
As Georges, Ryan Drummond has plenty of his own moments to leave memorable impressions during the course of the story’s wild and sometimes wacky telling. Along with his own down-played humor, he ensures there are romantic scenes that rival any of those on the big screens of the ‘30s and ‘40s — both when he sings solo in smooth and debonair richness “Song on the Sand” and when he is joined by Albin in a reprise of that song and in “With You on My Arm.” The eye-to-eye looks of love the two are want to give (when they are not heavy into another cat fight) speak of a mutual adoration to be envied by any set of spousal lovers, gay or straight — except maybe the religious-right parents of Jean-Michel’s fiancé.
When we first meet Jean-Michel, Nikita Burshteyn brings a personality and voice both fantastically likable to the young man now so in love that he sings with starry eyes and beaming smile, “With Anne on My Arm.” Jean-Michel takes a turn to the darker side as he puts impressing his future in-laws ahead of those who have burped him, fed him, and helped him with his homework. Mr. Burshteyn credibly portrays Jean-Michel’s flips of character as well as the prodigal’s eventual return to what is really important for his and his intended’s future (Anne, played by Samantha Rose).
While he does not have a song to song in solo in order to show off his vocals, Brian Yates Sharber finds plenty of opportunities to come very close to stealing the entire show as the purposefully nelly Jacob. This ‘maid’ is no mere servant but is clearly the one usually in full control of the household. The looks Jacob gives and the moves he makes communicate clearly his exact opinions and judgments, even when nothing comes out of his mouth beyond a turn-of-the-head ‘humph.’
The caricature of the straight-and-narrow, bigoted politician, Edouard Dindon, that Christopher Reber so wonderfully creates is in fact so realistic to be scary when compared to some present-day politicians. As his wife Marie, Adrienne Herro has her own chances to be overly pompous and pious; but she becomes much more interesting as both character and actress when Marie breaks out of norm to let her hair down, don a gown worthy of any drag queen, and find salvation somewhere other than via her husband’s narrow-strait route.
Bill English takes full advantage of the SF Playhouse’s medium-size theatre in order to create an intimacy and immediacy missing from former, big-house productions of La Cage. There are singular moments where the live show takes on the feel of the movies of old where the camera zeroes in for posed close-ups as everything freezes just a second for full effect and notice. The director also ensures that not a minute passes without our being fully entertained, including when a couple seconds of riotous risqué occur each time one of Jacquelyn Scott’s spectacular sets rotates around to the next.
A show like this would go nowhere if the multitudinous, appearance changes that the drag queens make were not all over-the-top in every respect. Abra Berman’s costumes, Laura Tyme’s wigs, and Creme Fatale’s make-up guarantee that these queens are given full royal treatment for both their and our total enjoyment.
A particularly delicious aspect of this production is the way individual instruments under Dave Dubrusky’s musical direction often interact with and echo the actors dialogue and/or the action on stage. As an ensemble, the six pieces also fill the air with the full ebullience of Jerry Herman’s score, never under-or-over playing as numbers are rendered by the singers and full ensemble.
San Francisco Playhouse has taken the Broadway, multi-Tony-winning hit, La Cage aux Folles — one more accustomed to the big stage on a big budget — and shaped the musical into a new but familiar enough version that shines and soars on its medium-size stage. The result is a belly-laughing, eye-popping, and heart-warming production replete with the voices and dance moves sure to impress.
Rating: 5 E
La Cage aux Folles continues through September 116, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli.
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Theatre Critic for the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, writing 150+ reviews annually for Theatre Eddys and Talkin' Broadway (San Jose/Silicon Valley). Read More