WOODMINSTER SUMMER MUSICALS ENDS THEIR 50TH SEASON WITH HEART AND SOUL AND HAIRSPRAY “THE BEST OF TIMES” WILL MAKE YOU SMILE.
The La Cage aux Folles nightclub is now open at Woodminster Summer Musicals through Sept 11th. The outdoor venue closes out its successful 50th season with an elegant production of this Tony Award-winning musical, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Thirty three years ago, August 1983, this Broadway musical opened and was revolutionary in the way that it portrayed gays onstage. It treated gays as equals and was a call for acceptance. LA CAGE went on to win seven Tony Awards including best musical. Director Joel Schlader says "This show has a positive message about love and acceptance, and what it means to be a family, - It also happens to be lively and entertaining, with some pretty amazing musical numbers. But mainly it's just a very, very funny play with classic jokes put in a modern context."
When the musical opened in 1983 it celebrated being open to who you are at a time when gay men were dying from the AIDS epidemic, the same time local state funding refused to acknowledge them. This was a dark time in New York’s history, and LA CAGE was very important to build spirits in a community that was unsure of their future. This shining production in Oakland brings the love and heart of this story, that started out as a play in 1973 France by Jean Poiret. The play led to a popular French film of the same name then to the musical, and in 1996 the successful American film THE BIRD CAGE with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
This latest production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, skillfully communicates the heart and humor of Tony Award-winners Harvey Fierstein, for Book, and Jerry Herman, for Lyrics and Music, with a cast that includes many Woodminster favorites. Set in St. Tropez, France, the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub features an energized cast of wigs and heels. Well Directed by Schlader who has assembled an excellent cast, with some keen decadence and a delightful love story.
The play's name refers to the drag nightclub where Georges emcees and Albin performs, and its nightclub scenes include numbers by Les Cagelles, the glamorous chorus line. 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. To please their son, the two agree to hide their lifestyle and play it ‘straight’. But Albin’s different notion of ‘normal’ threatens to confuse the entire engagement.
Schlader directs his talented cast at a marvelous pace, allowing just enough time for the laughter to fade and the heartstrings being tugged. This is the second company of La Cage’s players I have seen this summer, BAM just closed out their season with Georges and Albin, so it was a pleasure to see this larger version of the musical. This is spot on with the rights of acceptance and love for all. Georges is in vintage glamour played remarkably by Chris Vettel. His wonderful solo “With You on My Arm” he sings with his lover Albin played by the charismatic Clark Sterling.
They are the heart of this show. Vettel hosts the La Cage club, as he introduces the show girls the Les Cagelles are a visual delight as they open the show with “We Are What We Are”. The outdoor Woodminster Amphitheatre is a bit vast to pull off a cabaret club feel, and Albin has to do his best to bring the large audience a more intimate feel, yet Sterling pulls it off. The stage “with in a stage” feel keeps the show distant from the audience, but Michael Horsley orchestra is on set and that helps bring the two and half hour show a warm feel.
Sterling and company are stunning in “A Little More Mascara” and the sizzling Cagelles drag dancers, featuring Larry Hawelu, Charlie Fields, Travis Brown, Sean McGrory, Jose Antonio, Todd Schlader, Natalie Fong, Meg Jaron, Oscar Tsukayama, Harmony Livingston, and local favorite Rod-Voltaire Edora, romp elegantly in heels, whips and wigs. Vettel commands the stage as Georges, introducing his Cagelles and his star Zaza.
The impressive Clark Sterling plays both Albin and Zaza, the star of the follies. Sterling has an excellent voice and he keenly portrays Georges’ wife and lover. Vettel and Sterling are marvelous in the number “Song on the Sand”. Vettel has a first rate voice - his passionate solo and baritone voice are highlighted in “Look Over There”. From the first dance number Jody Jaron’s choreography is high kicking and fun. She keeps her boys tapping in heels and they all are accomplished in the icon song “La Cage aux Folles” and “We Are What We Are”. Jaron’s choreography is what we expect to see in a line dance of elegant drag queens.
Schlader and Jaron treat the musical honestly, and they both bring out the dignity in Albin/Zaza and manages to make the villain Mr. Dindon human by the end of the show. Georges has successfully run La Cage for years with his love Albin as the club's star attraction, Zaza. His son 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.
Dapper Eric Carlson is memorable 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 enduring Harmony Livingston as Anne. With a warm chemistry, Livingston and Carlson dance a lovely pas de deux like polished pro’s. Carlson is convincing at adding some tears to his performance, especially when Jean-Michel eventually apologizes with "Look Over There (reprise)."
The hilarious Nick Nakashima is a scene stealer as Jacob, Albin's "I want to be on stage" maid/butler. The comic timing of his witty one liners consistently upstages the scenes from his talented cohorts. Jacqueline DeMuro has a realistic French accent as the opportunistic restaurant owner Jacqueline and captures one of the few strong female roles. Randy Burke, Dan Kapler, Ginnie Meneze and Christine Burke authentically play cabaret visitors and supporting roles.
Greg Carlson and Anna Johan are the perfect blind couple to portray the Dindons, the anti homosexual, conservative parents of Jean-Michel's bride-to-be. Carlson, as the villain, milks his unwelcome moment in the nightclub spotlight with comedic class, while Johan, 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", Sterling’s comic walks like a man are a show stopping and when the Dindon's try to figure out the erotic artwork on the dinner plates Joham is fun and feisty and perfect in the role as Anne’s mom. Woodminster favorite, Todd Schlader, also plays Francis the stage manager who offers a great comic shtick that I won’t spoil, inspired by Cagelle Mona whip decadently played by the talented Sean McGrory.
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,” Sterling shows his 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 Vettel’s strong voice and subtle acting, it is tearfully memorable. The craft team for this production had the difficult task of warming up the vast Woodminster stage. Light designer Jon Gourdine has done some brilliant work at Woodminster and he continues his excellence with night club lighting mixed with rows of show lights, and follow spots. His late summer show means that the opening night crowd gets a hint of his lighting skills. Since the sun is set by 8pm on these cold September nights and the show lights at LA CAGE aux Folles are dazzling.
The cabaret nightclub set designed by Maggie Lamb utilizes the Cagelles art deco dance line and she brings the chorus downstage. Her use of pastel color work and feather graphic decor is great for both the living room and Folles club sets. Lamb's apartment design doesn’t hit the mark to be as outrageous as it should be for two gay men, but it's a good attempt. Costume Designer Alison Morris’ glamorous and colorful costumes are mostly imported from costume shops but appropriately run the gambit from showgirl lingerie, to conservative matron, to campy feather boas.
Wig designer Rod Edora's, big hair steals some of the dance scenes and Zaza’s wigs are all perfect fits and set the mood for 70’s glam. Edora also designed all the makeup for the boys; “we are what we are and what we are is an illusion. We love how it feels putting on heels and causing confusion”. Musical director Horsley leads a spirited on-stage band, with an eight member orchestra that is a crowd pleaser and keeps the musical moving. Carole Davis sound design is effective even as wigs and gowns could cover those body mics. Lisa Danz props included those sexy trinkets in the apartment and elegant plates that shocked the Dindon family.
Woodminster is famous for family friendly theatre. They have taken a risk with this 50th season producing two adult theme musicals this summer. But I must suggest that LaCage is a family friendly musical presenting true heart and soul for Bay Area audiences. The opening night crowd was welcoming and cheering on the antics of the story and love between Albin and Georges. This summer marked the anniversary of Gay Marriage and the Schladers have brought that home. With humor and heart, this “La Cage” is a glorious romp that allows the audience to laugh, cry a little and take away a deeper message of acceptance even under wiggs, heels, layers of makeup and feathers. The second act closer “The Best of Times” will touch your heart and remind us how special we all are. The sparkling cast provides polished entertainment, and the heartfelt storyline is a classic, it may be gaudy, but it never goes out of style.
WOODMINSTER SUMMER MUSICALS
Presents their 50th season
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, based in the play by Jean Poiret
Directed by Joel Schlader
Musical Direction Michael Horsley
Choreographer Jody Jaron
Only through Sept 11th
Two and half hours one intermission
3300 Joaquin Miller Road, Oakland
Tickets: $26 to $59 with each child free with a paying adult
Video and photo’s by Stephen Woo, Kathy Kahn, and Jon Kawamoto