The extravaganza that is ‘La Cage aux Folles’ comes to San DiegoEntertainment Feature, Section 4A Thursday, September 17th, 2015
La Cage Aux Folles got its start in 1973 when French playwright Jean Poiret penned a play about a gay couple. Georges, who manages a nightclub that offers drag entertainment, and his partner Albin who headlines the drag show. Both are faced with a complication involving Georges’ son, Jean-Michel. He wants to marry his fiancée Anne, who just happens to have very conservative parents.
The play paved the way for two films (1978, 1996) and a Broadway musical that has been revived three times (1983, 2004, 2010). It has also had a successful run in London’s West End (2008).
The French film, of the same name, and its two sequels were box office successes, which later spawned an American version called The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
All three Broadway productions were critically acclaimed though each version was a little different than the first. Time frame and public acceptance are among the few hurdles this show has endured, and yet each time it’s been revived it’s received nothing but accolades.
San Diego Musical Theatre (SDMT) opens their version of the show, directed by Larry Raben, Sept. 25 at the historic Spreckles Theatre downtown.
What sets this regional production apart from most others is actor David Engel. Engel originated the role of Hannah of Hamburg in the original Broadway cast 32 years ago. This production will mark his third time playing the roles of Albin/Zaza. Engel explains that while the script has been revised the original script still lingers in the back of his mind.
“I did indeed create the role of Hannah in the original 1983 production of La Cage, Engel said. “I performed it for the entire four-year run. This will be the third time I have played Albin in the show but the thing that is different about this time is that it is the newly revised script from the 2010 revival. When we first did the show, Harvey Fierstien was brought on as writer. He was quite the “new flavor” on Broadway as Torch Song Trilogy was a big hit and was still running. But the director of La Cage, Arthur Lawrence (West Side Story/Gypsy), steered Harvey in his writing. The first revival in 2004 still retained the original script but Harvey completely rewrote the script for the latest revival. I think it is much smarter than the original. I still have the 32-year-old script in my head but I love the differences and the challenge of approaching the show with a new perspective. I am also so welcoming of new direction and doing the show in a whole new way.”
Robert Townsend, a familiar face to the SDMT stage, plays Georges. It’s a complicated role and one that walks a fine line when it comes to love and honor. On one hand Georges is a master of ceremonies and has to keep his business afloat and on the other he has to make a decision that could hurt both his business and his relationships. Townsend is tackling this by keeping his focus on what’s most important.
“The master of ceremonies portion of Georges is certainly a blast as he interacts with the Cagelles,” Townsend admitted. “The thing I am focusing on is the relationships. That is the heart of the piece, this beautiful loving relationship that is shared by these two men, and how that love translates to their son. Georges understands the men in his life, and accepts everything about them, all the good and the not quite as good.”
While George does accept all the good and bad in his family, he is faced with a decision that could ultimately end what he’s worked so hard for.
“George’s toughest decision is to ask Albin not to be around for the meeting of [Anne’s] parents,” Townsend confessed. “It’s such a hurtful thing to ask, not only to not be there, but to actually deny in essence who he is and what he has sacrificed over the years as a ‘mother’ to Jean-Michel. It truly shows that a loving family is a loving family, regardless of the gender of the parents.”
Raben, an actor and director for many years admits that he’s definitely more at home with musical comedy. However, in this instance he gets the chance to deliver both comedy and drama to his audience and is loving that opportunity.
“I love comedy,” Raben said. “Both as an actor and a director. I also love doing dramatic work, but for me, ‘finding the funny’ is something that I have excelled at. I like finding comedy that is born out of truth. La Cage is a wonderful hybrid of comedy and drama. The dramatic conflict resonates because of people hiding the truth. Pretense is a destructive force. Truth finally prevails. I want audiences to take away from this that families come in all shapes and sizes and that ultimately love and communication and acceptance win the day.”
One of the amazing things that Raben and Engel get to bring to the table is their own relationship. The two have been a couple now for many years and while Engel has done this show now four times, this is the first time Raben has directed him in it. Raben explained how many similarities his real life relationship has with the one that unfolds on stage.
“David and I have been married seven years and together 22 years next month,” Raben said. “I’ve spent many years of my career on stage alongside him and have directed him many times. This is the first time that we are getting to explore the ins and outs of a gay relationship together in a show. What I love most about this show is that ultimately it proves that family is family. No two are identical. None are really that different. Everyone wants to love and be loved and when our selfishness gets in the way of making good decisions, love and forgiveness can heal and win the day. Georges and Albin have been together for 20 years and we literally understand what that journey is like and what it takes to make it that far and be bonded for life. There is blessed peace in knowing that the one you love is still crazy about you after all that time. And yes you can annoy each other and wound each other deeply, but you can also lift each other up in ways that 10 years earlier you couldn’t. We’ve great respect for each other’s talent, and we can snip at each other in rehearsals (mostly for comic effect) in a way that we wouldn’t with other directors/actors. But in the end, we’re really lucky to share this first experience together; mine working on the show and David playing this new revival script.”
Engel couldn’t agree more with Raben, pointing out that they both feel the same about working together. They have directed each other, written and choreographed together, and performed side by side each other. It’s something they do well and when given the chance, they work together whenever they can.
“Larry and I met working together,” Engel said. “We have a history and shorthand that just works. We are very much like Georges and Albin in that we are in a longtime committed relationship rooted in great love with counterbalancing strengths. It all just works.”
With 13 Tony Awards, including three for Best Musical, a musical score written by two time Tony Award winner Jerry Herman (Mame, Hello Dolly) and a book written by three time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, Hairspray), La Cage aux Folles more than speaks for itself.
With the addition of Raben, Engel and Townsend, it sounds like a show that shouldn’t be missed. La Cage aux Folles runs Sept. 25 through Oct. 11 at the San Diego Musical Theatre.
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