News Column

Cabrillo Stage chases the rainbown in 'La Cage Aux Folles,'

July 10, 2013

YellowBrix

July 10--If the recent Supreme Court rulings on the marriage rights of same-sex couples has issued in a kind of Renaissance for gay people, then there are certainly many -- gay and straight -- who can still remember the Dark Ages.

It may have been no darker than 30 years ago, in 1983, with the Reagan Revolution in full swing, the Moral Majority at its apex and the AIDS epidemic just beginning to explode. The notion of gays being allowed to legally marry was about as likely as NASA landing on Neptune.

But, then again, there was "La Cage Aux Folles."

Harvey Fierstein's now classic musical, with music from Jerry Herman, made its debut on Broadway in August of 1983 and, with it, gay culture had found a flashpoint of celebration and joy amid the misery of the times. Here was an extravagant and outre stage spectacle full of songs and laughs, and at its very center was a committed, long-term gay couple gamely trying to conform to heterosexual culture out of love for their son.

This week, "La Cage" opens the summer musical season at Cabrillo Stage in a radically different world than when it opened in '83. But the show remains as it always has been -- a family story, albeit one with lots of drag queens.

Those who've never seen the musical might remember the 1996 movie version "The Birdcage," starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Both that film and Fierstein's "La Cage" were based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret. It tells the story of

Georges and Albin, who run the infamous St. Tropez nightclub La Cage Aux Folles, the former as the club's emcee, the latter as one its featured drag performers.

The couple have a son, from Georges's youthful indiscretion, who is now an adult and eager to marry a girl who happens to be the daughter of a high-profile conservative moralist who wants to shut down the drag clubs. Despite their misgivings, Georges and Albin -- in drag -- pose as their son's straight parents to meet the girl's parents. Let's just say, hijinks ensue.

Director Janie Scott, a veteran choreographer and director at Cabrillo Stage, said she did not choose to stage "La Cage" as a commentary on the current political moment, but rather because the celebrated Santa Cruz theater company had never attempted it before.

"Because it's in the public consciousness now," she said, "how can you not make those connections. But we wanted to do it because it's just a great show."

The original "La Cage" won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, for the 1983 season. Perhaps more enduringly, it launched a song that became an anthem of gays as they emerged from the AIDS crisis, "I Am What I Am": "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."

"It's an affirmation of gay culture in theater," said Lawrence Helman, a longtime publicist in San Francisco's theater community. "I always use the analogy of what happened during the Great Depression in the '30s when the movies were filled with all these opulent images and people like Mae West and Gina Harlow, and the White Telephone films, which were very popular as the country was ensconced during the Depression. 'La Cage' (in 1983) was like that. It was helping people escape to a fantasy."

The scene stealers in "La Cage" are Les Cagelles, the drag chorus line of dancers who provide the evening's entertainment at La Cage, along with Albin as his on-stage persona Zaza.

"It's always been on my bucket list to perform as a Cagelle," said Robert Coverdell, who plays Chantal at Cabrillo Stage this summer. "We're the spectacle of the show."

In this show, Les Cagelles are mostly, but not exclusively, males in drag, and as the showgirls who provide much of the show's wow factor, they are called to do everything from rollerskating, to tap dancing, to ballet, to (gulp!) bikinis. "And, yes, we'll do a killer can-can," said Coverdell.

The actor called on to tackle the role of Albin/Zaza, one of Broadway's splashiest and showiest roles, is veteran Tony Panighetti, who is playing a woman for the third time in a Cabrillo Stage musical. He was also Daphne in "Some Like it Hot" and Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray."

"When I was first offered the role," he said, "it was such an honor. I was so excited but I was also so scared because this is such a big role in a big show. But I will say that, in this show, we're all going places that we've never been before."

Lawrence Helman said that "La Cage" is also a credit to songwriter Jerry Herman, who was diagnosed HIV-positive just two years after the Broadway debut of "La Cage."

"Jerry Herman's music is amazing in this show," he said. "He's mostly known for 'Hello, Dolly' and 'Mame,' and because of those shows, people don't often talk about 'La Cage,' but if you look at songs like 'I Am What I Am,' (it's message was) 'People hate us, but we will prevail.'"

"La Cage" is also a kind of show within a show, as the audience of the play doubles as the audience of the show at La Cage. "This show really lends itself to having a relationship with the audience," said director Scott. "Georges addresses the audience directly, and the Cagelles have access out to the house. We wanted to create the illusion of being at the club as faithfully as possible."

"The show has always been a big hit with straight audiences," said Helman. "Now, I'm a big Stephen Sondheim fan, but if you look at some of his shows, there's a darkness to them. But 'La Cage' is just so unthreatening in that way. It's simple, joyous, life-affirming fun."

{ through aug. 11 Opening Friday. Crocker Theater on the campus of Cabrillo College. For showtimes and ticket information, go to www.cabrillostage.com. }

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(c)2013 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com

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