Gay ’70s Return
La Cage aux Folles entertains but cannot shock.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
In London in the late 1970s, I was jolted abruptly into sober adulthood by an ad for the musical Hair, which I’d seen live at the Aquarius theater in Hollywood when it was new and scandalous (and then gone home to report that “it tells it like it really is”).
Fast forward to 1977, when the Time Out listing described the play as “a costume drama of the 1960s.” Just a minute...costume drama? That eye-opening, hippie banner-waving piece of theater? I was smacked around the head with the realization that society had changed: This is what history feels like when you discover you’re in it, already.
La Cage aux Folles first stepped onto the world stage as a play in France in 1973, as a film five years later, as a Broadway musical another five years later, in 1983, and then was modified to become an American film in 1996. That’s a 23-year eternity for a barrier-breaking piece of theater.
It was the first modern mainstream musical to feature sympathetic homosexual heroes and transsexual characters. With a libretto by Harvey Fierstein and a lavish Tony Award-winning production on Broadway, it was responsible for opening a lot of eyes. In the intervening quarter century the load has lightened a lot: homosexual families are familiar, accepted and part of life, and, in California at least, people living transsexually are pretty common. So La Cage aux Folles is left without a social crusade to stand on its own as a piece of theater.
I had that Hair feeling all over again at the PacRep production of La Cage, which proved to be a tasteful comedy of manners with family values and a prim hearts-and-flowers romance at its core.
The performance begins as Master of Ceremonies Georges (John Racca) welcomes the audience to his nightclub and the curtain opens to a giant staircase with a tableaux of dancers, Les Cagelles, a chorus of comically assorted shapes and sizes, performing the anthemic “We Are What We Are.” At first clad in voluminous and strangely frumpy gowns, Les Cagelles gradually shed their silks and reveal themselves as glamorous showgirls campily vamping in this rousing opening number. In the tasteful environs of Carmel I felt like a drunken sailor stumbling into a cathedral service as I vocalized, clapped and whistled in what seemed appropriate appreciation of the guy-girls strutting brazenly on stage. The near-capacity audience clapped with polite enthusiasm. We’re not in St. Tropez any more, Toto.
Never mind; soon the audience is pulled into the broad bosom of the play as the scene changes to a backstage dressing room where we meet the star of the show, the inimitable Zaza, the theatrical alter-ego of our heroine, Albin (Sid Cato). With a voice down in the barroom-floor register and a face that could have launched a thousand fistfights, Sid as Albin as Zaza is a delightfully unlikely drag queen. In this first musical soliloquy, as Albin dresses for the show from a well-stuffed foundation into a gleaming gown, she complains that “when life is a real bitch again,” she’d just “put a little more mascara on.”
Throughout the evening, Albin never disappoints. Poignant, funny, glamorous, droll, she is a thoroughly sympathetic character, whether being a big star with the vapors or a wife in a 20-year partnership. John Racca as Georges has the confident air of a successful businessman, as well as a lovely, sure, bold baritone and impeccable timing. As we become acquainted with his character, however, it’s exactly his middle-aged handsomeness and competence and evenness that keep a lid of normalcy on what is essentially an outrageous farce.
The production is very well done; it’s PacRep, after all. However, this show is not being played for high camp. La Cagelles are not naughty, the S&M Hannah from Hamburg may crack a whip but isn’t dangerous, Albin and Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, is pretty much a normal, annoying, spoiled 20-something in love. And the villain of the piece, the morality crusader Edouard Dindon, is no more threatening than a bullying bore at a dinner party. The staging keeps all the characters at a polite distance that allows the performers and the audience to remaim pretty detached.
True, when La Cage was first produced on Broadway, it was bold to present theater with a homosexual theme in that first tragic decade of the AIDS epidemic in an atmosphere of still-pervasive homophobia. That’s why director Arthur Laurents kept his characters in tight rein, so as not to offend. But several decades later, the undemonstrative relationship of the lead characters seems overly timid and mild.
Nevertheless, the evening is merry. The musical numbers are fun, Zaza is brilliant, James “Pete” Russell (as butler/maid Jacob) provides the all-out camp we are otherwise missing, and the audience can leave satisfied but no wiser from a pleasant period piece.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES continues at the Golden Bough Theatre, Monte Verde between Eight and Ninth in Carmel, through April 22. 622-0100 or pacrep.org.