BAY AREA MUSICALS ENDS SEASON ONE WITH WIGS, HEELS, HAIR SPRAY, AND “THE BEST OF TIMES” IN THIS FOLLIES.
The La Cage aux Folles nightclub is now open in the SF Mission through July 31st. Bay Area Musicals closes out its successful first season with a handsome production of this Tony Award-winning musical, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. 33 years ago, August 1983, a Broadway musical opened that was revolutionary in the way gays were portrayed onstage. It treated gays as equals and was a call for acceptance. LA CAGE went on to win seven Tony Awards including best musical.
This latest production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, successfully communicates the heart and humor of Tony Award-winners Harvey Fierstein, for Book, and Jerry Herman, for Lyrics & Music, injecting a San Francisco flavor, as BAM does so well. Set in St. Tropez, France, the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub features an energized cast of wigs and heels. Directed and choreographed by BAMs overworked Artistic Director Matthew McCoy, who says, “This iconic musical is the perfect closer for Bay Area Musicals’ inaugural season, as it marks the one-year anniversary since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the country. Our version will have all of the laughs, heart and tapping it’s known for – while also stripping away the feathers to reveal the underground world of gay nightclubs during the 1970s.” McCoy has assembled an excellent cast, with some keen decadence and a delightful love story, now on stage at the Victoria Theatre through July 31st.
Most of us may know “La Cage aux Folles” better for its movie adaptation, “The Birdcage, “ starring Nathan Lane and the late Robin Williams. Adapted for the stage by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman from a 1973 French play, it’s the story of how the lives of Georges and Albin are turned upside down when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, announces he’s engaged to the daughter of a religious conservative politician. Jean-Michel tries to block Albin from meeting his future in-laws, but Albin has other plans.
McCoy deftly directs his very talented cast at a neck-breaking pace, allowing just enough time for the laughter to fade and the heartstrings to stop being tugged. With the current news of police shootings, and the Bastille Day tragedy in Nice, La Cage’s timely opening may be a bit dark, but is spot on with the rights of acceptance and love for all. When entering the iconic Victoria Theatre, of course we have our host Georges greet us in the lobby, played remarkably by local favorite Clay David. He is the heart of this show. Not only hosting the La Cage club, he seats the audience and greets as many of the crowd as he can before the lights dim. The historic Mission-district Victoria Theatre is the perfect setting for the show-within-a-show, where Clay David continually walks into the house and interacts with the audience. David plays Georges more fem and gay than we usually see this character potrayed and it works.
Clay and company open the show with “We Are What We Are” and the sizzling Cagelles drag dancers, featuring Patrick Brewer, Michael Saentz, Christopher Juan, Malakani Severson, Lavale Davis and the adorable RJ San Jose, romp in heels, whips and wigs. The impressive Michael RJ Campbell plays Albin/Zaza, the star of the follies. Campbell has an excellent voice and he gently portrays Georges’ wife and lover. David and Campbell are marvelous in the number “With You On My Arm”. David has an elegant voice - his passionate solo and tenor voice are highlights in this production. Matthew McCoy serves as both director and choreographer and treats the story very honestly, which is not always the case with this show. He brings out the dignity in Albin/Zaza and even makes Mr. Dindon human by the end of the show. McCoy expresses all the emotion and comedy while making the show still relevant. His choreography is what we expect to see in a line dance of naughty drag queens.
Georges has successfully run La Cage for years with his love Albin as the club's star attraction, Zaza. Jean-Michel, the result of Georges' hetero night of passion with a gorgeous showgirl twenty years ago, returns home to announce his intentions to marry Anne, the daughter of an extremely moral, far-right politician. High jinks ensue as Georges and Albin's flat gets 'de-gayed' by Jean-Michel for a visit by Anne’s parents. David charismatically commands the stage as Georges, introducing his Cagelles and his star. He is ever so romantic as he sings "Song on the Sand" and poignant in "Look Over There" and both songs show off his excellent voice. I do have to mention that the sound design by Julie Indelicato and Jake Delgado was not up to par, and much of the dialogue from some of the featured players was lost due to the poor sound system. Yet both David and Campbell transcended the technical issues and blew the Victoria out to 16th street.
Jake O’Reilly did a good job with the unsympathetically-written character of Jean-Michel. In his song "With Anne on My Arm" he reveals the charming, innocent love between Jean-Michel and the talented Bessie Zolno as Anne. With a warm chemistry, O’Reilly and Zolno dance a lovely pas de deux very well. O’Reilly is first-rate at adding some tears to his performance, especially when Jean-Michel eventually apologizes with "Look Over There (reprise)." Joseph Alvarado is a hoot as Jacob, Albin's "I want to be on stage" maid/butler. The comic timing of his witty barbs consistently steals the scenes from his talented cohorts, yet we miss many of them due to the poor sound. Sarah Sloan takes full command as the opportunistic restaurant owner Jacqueline and captures one of the few strong female roles.
Cameron Weston and Mary Gibboney fully realize their portrayals of the Dindons, the anti homosexual, conservative parents of Jean-Michel's bride-to-be. Weston, as the villain, milks his unwelcome moment in the nightclub spotlight with comedic class, while Gibboney, as the submissive wife Madame Dindon, surprises all, bursting out with her unexpected operatic pipes. Some stand-out hysterical moments include Georges' lessons butching-up Albin in "Masculinity" (Campbell serves up plenty of laughs) and when the Dindon's try to figure out the erotic artwork on the dinner plates (so hilariously inspired by Gibboney - she is fun and feisty and perfect in the role as Anne’s mom). The appealing Billy Raphael opens the show with his accordion mood music to bring the audience into the La Cage night club and plays Francis the stage manager who offers a great comic shtick that I won’t spoil.
The musical mixes dance numbers by Albin’s onstage alter-ego, Zaza, and the bawdy Cagelles, with scenes in Georges and Albin’s above-the-club apartment. In Jerry Herman’s iconic first-act closer for Albin, “I Am What I Am,” Campbell performs with passion and gentility. The excellent second-act ensemble performance of “The Best of Times” is an important part of this enduring love story and, thanks to David's strong voice and subtle acting, his tender love ballad “Song on the Sand” is tearfully memorable. The craft team for this production easily takes advantage of this old venue and La Cage fits perfectly at this Mission District former burlesque stage. TBA award-winning lighting designer Joe D’Emilio has done some brilliant work at the Victoria and he continues his excellence with night club lighting mixed with rows of show lights. His use of rich backlighting on his actors is always his trademark and at times makes his design a main character in the production.
The sparkly nightclub set of one of my favorite designers, Kuo-Hao Lo, ingeniously utilizes the Cagelles art deco dance line to perfection. His use of pastel color work and vertical graphic 1970s decor windows is great for both the living room and Folles club sets. Lo’s apartment design is a tongue-in-cheek homage to seventies excess, complete with an oversized male nude statue, gaudy gold couch and erotic art. He also included some tables down front for VIP clubbers. Costume Designer Brook Jennings’ glamorous and colorful costumes appropriately run the gambit from showgirl to conservative matron to campy feather boa's. Wig Designer Jacqueline Dennis’ big hair steals some of the dance scenes and Zaza’s wigs are all perfect fits and set the tone for 70’s glam. Musical director Jon Gallo leads a spirited off-stage band, which occasionally drowned out the singers due to the low-end sound system. But Gallo’s six member orchestra is still a crowd pleaser and keeps the two and half hour musical moving.
“La Cage” could come off as a dated period piece, but thanks to thoughtful touches and heartfelt performances, it’s a rousing and modern celebration of acceptance and is especially timely as this month is the anniversary of Gay Marriage. Clay David and Michael RJ Campbell bring great charm to this grand glam evening and receive sheer applause. The second act closer “The Best of Times” will touch your heart and leave you wanting more. This is the perfect musical to wear your heels to this summer.
BAY AREA MUSICALS
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, based in the play by Jean Poiret
Director and Choreographer by MATTHEW MCCOY
Musical Director JON GALLO
THROUGH JULY 31st
2961 16TH STREET, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94103
Tickets range from $25 to $60, and are available at (415) 340-2207
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Photos by Ben Krantz