Some bright day, gay marriage will be unshakably legal in this country, and works such as the glittery 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles will be charming but dated artifacts of the bad old days when the idea of two men or two women marrying was anathema. Children brought to see La Cage, which startled audiences twenty years ago with its portrayal of a long-term committed gay couple, will turn to whatever combination of parents they have and ask in all seriousness what all the fuss was about. Remember that once upon a time it was illegal for people to marry across color lines; with any luck, we'll look back on these days of the Supreme Court overturning all those San Francisco marriages and Dubya's boneheaded "Defense of Marriage" amendment and be duly embarrassed.
In the meantime, much of this musical is still relevant and surprisingly touching underneath the sequins and satin that adorn the performers at Georges' French Riviera nightclub, La Cage aux Folles. Under the flamboyant dance numbers and shoulder-spanning feathered headdresses, there is still a wrenching story about a son thoughtlessly asking a loving parent to do something unconscionable. The actors and creative staff of the Diablo Light Opera Company manage to capture both aspects -- the glitz and the grief -- in a funny, well-paced production of one of mainstream American theater's few completely sympathetic representations of transvestism.
Albin and Georges are two middle-aged men ("one transvestite, one plain homosexual") who have been together for more than twenty years. They've spent that time building a thriving business (Georges owns the club, and Albin is the major draw as glamorous songbird Zsa Zsa) and a happy family (Georges has a son from a youthful fling with a chorus girl). When son Jean-Michel announces that his fiancée Anne's ultraconservative and well-connected parents the Dindons are coming for a visit and that he intends to "straighten out" the house, the fur (and sequins, and silk, and lamé) flies. At first it looks as if Albin will be banished altogether, but he's so anxious to meet the potential in-laws -- and take his rightful place as one of Jean-Michel's parents -- that he agrees to butch up for the visit, playing the role of "Uncle Al." Of course it doesn't work, and before you can shake a mascara brush, the Dindons (French for "turkey") are howling bloody murder, Jean-Michel and Anne look like they might have to play a Romeo and Juliet-style ending, and there's a bad case of transvestite showgirls breaking out all over. Will Albin's patented blend of "girlish excitement and manly restraint" save the day, or will the nightclub end up shuttered and two families shattered?
Peter Del Fiorentino's Albin is tremendous; when he comes out to sing "I Am What I Am" in a great growling heartbroken voice, you just want to strangle whoever could be causing him so much pain. It doesn't hurt that he looks a bit like Nathan Lane, who chewed up the role in the film adaptation The Birdcage, but he has the presence and the voice in his own right to carry the show. "I Am What I Am" is one of his great moments, but the second act also boasts the hilarious "Masculinity," in which Georges and a group of friendly townspeople take Albin through Manliness 101 ("Eat that croissant like John Wayne. No, better go with the toast"). Del Fiorentino has a hilarious bit of business in this song where he's forced to spread his legs in a most unladylike fashion; it's emblematic of his total physicalization of the role.
Curt Denham is not as strong as Georges, but there's something odd going on. While his acting is often overblown, the tender chemistry between Georges and Albin works -- especially when he sings. Denham sells the ballad where Georges sings of his love for his partner, and his "Look Over There" castigating Jean-Michel for his uncaring treatment of Albin could make everyone run home to call their mothers when the show lets out. Georges has a nemesis in Moka Davis as Jacob the butler -- excuse me, Jacob the maid -- whose finger-in-the-light-socket hair and talk-to-the-hand demeanor add up to one sassy little Tina Turner wanna-be in crinolines.
Judy Ryken makes a lot from a little as the hesitant, long-suffering Madame Dindon. Watching her face as she teeters around on her too-high hot-pink heels at the end is a riot. In the more serious moments where she's trying to mediate between her daughter and her blowhard husband, she's the most believable of the three.
And then there are Les Cagelles, the most astonishing thing anyone has tried on a Contra Costa stage in forever: ten beautiful showgirls, only two of whom are actually girls to begin with. Part of the fun of this particular production is trying to guess which two (and I'll admit I got it wrong); it's more fun if you know that some of the male Cagelles had never donned drag before being cast in this show. (Or so they say.) While the dancing varies -- especially in the can-can routine to "La Cage aux Folles" near the end of the first act, where some of the Cagelles seemed to be watching their sisters for cues and it was hard to tell if the dancers were crashing into each other for comic effect -- it's balanced out by moments like the solid tap work in "We Are What We Are" and the puppyish athleticism of "Masculinity." Cagelle "Hanna from Hamburg" is a bit disappointing when it comes to whip choreography, although a number in which she "tames" two dancers in kitty suits is cute.
Some of the Cagelles also sing very well. M. Kramer has a showy moment near the beginning warbling away as Chantal until another makes the "hurry-up" gesture; Kramer is bookended near the end by M. Newton's Lo Singhwho also has a dramatic sustain.
The frequent scene changes between the nightclub, Georges and Albin's home, and the village go smoothly on Andrea Bechert's nimble, pastel-heavy set, and the Art Nouveau-influenced costumes and Sara Beukers' wigs and makeup are a treat. Cheryl Yee Glass' confident hand on the conductor's baton is a potent reminder of the virtues of live accompaniment. Unfortunately the amplification from the performers' head mikes seemed inadequate the afternoon I went, but otherwise technically the show is the usual solid DLOC offering.
Some people feel La Cage is an unrealistic portrayal of gay folk (musicals being known, of course, for their realism). It's a valid concern; sure, most gay people do not go about in drag or have a door connecting their home to their nightclub. For that matter, transvestites are not necessarily gay. And perhaps La Cage does perpetuate some stereotypes, but how wonderful to see a popular work where transvestitism is so gloriously embraced as a valid mode of self-expression and not as concomitant with murderous psychosis.
And most of us have known someone like Albin. Even if we haven't, people like Georges and Albin -- committed, loving, same-sex couples who are fully capable of raising solid families if they so choose -- are as real as it gets. Props to DLOC for recognizing the latter with a fun, exuberant production that invites audiences (gay, straight, or otherwise) to make the antigay attitudes lampooned in La Cage a thing of the past.
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