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Review: 35 years later, StageWorks’ sparkling ‘La Cage’ seems even more relevant today

THEATER REVIEW

We all have a front stage. It’s the face we present to the world. We all have a backstage, too, a private space where we can let down our respective guards and — if we’re lucky enough — have good family and friends share in our more complicated selves.

That goes for all of us, whether we’re drag queens or not.

Pictured above: Joel C. Abels gives a memorable performance as Albin in ‘La Cage Aux Folles.” Photo: StageWorks Fresno

I thought a lot about this division between front stage and backstage while watching StageWorks Fresno’s compelling and accomplished “La Cage Aux Folles,” a production that throws us into a big swimming pool of merriment and then splashes us for two and a half hours with naughtiness, hilarity, love and empowerment. In an interview with me before opening, co-director J. Daniel Herring mentioned how important the front/backstage idea was for his concept of the show. The discussion stuck with me.

Which brings us to the first-act finale, the show-stopping solo titled “I Am What I Am.”

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The song by Jerry Herman — just one of many glorious numbers in this classic score — has been covered many times and achieved anthem status. In the original context of this show, it is sung by Albin, a happily married gay man whose drag persona, ZaZa, is the headline attraction at the club he owns with his husband, Georges. In this scene, Albin has just learned that his son, Jean-Michel, doesn’t want him to meet his fiancee’s uptight parents because of Albin’s, um, more feminine qualities. (He simply can’t keep his pinkie finger down when drinking a cup of tea.)

So Albin copes the only way he knows: He proclaims to the world (or at least to the audience at the club, and, by extension, the StageWorks audience as well): He is what he is. And he’s not making any compromises.

I’ve seen Joel C. Abels, who plays Albin (and is the StageWorks artistic director), perform many times in many shows. I’ve heard him sing many songs. But his “I Am What I Am” resonates in a way that I think might well be one for the ages in terms of his performance oeuvre. (I hope I’m not being overly morbid here, but, hey, when you’re over 50, you start to ponder such things.)

On opening night, Abels started very softly, a capella, as I’ve always heard the song performed before. A woodwind soon comes in, hinting of more instruments to come. (The live orchestra, conducted by Ryan Dirlam, is top-notch.) What I expected next was a steady increase in dynamics, building with each key change, then culminating in a loud, raucous expression of self-worth.

But Abels surprised me. Sooner than I expected in the song, he made a big, great, ugly gulp. (Which is a close sister to an ugly cry.) His voice broke and volume spiked. I don’t know if this was planned. But I was tremendously moved. Why? Because it seemed, at that moment, that he was tremendously moved. It was as if the song itself had caught him in its grip and provoked a raw and spontaneous reaction.


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And it made me think, again, of front stage and backstage. Was this emotional whammy a glimpse backstage of Albin’s true character? Was it a glimpse front stage of Abels himself, something calculated and planned (which is otherwise known as great acting)? Or was it a glimpse backstage not of Albin but of Abels, a tremendous baring of his soul? (Which, likewise, is great acting, but somehow on another whole level.)

It all crashed together for me, making me think a lot. And, yes, cry a little. Not that mine were the only tears I saw being shed in the audience.

Anyway. Now that I’ve raced down this heavy philosophical road, I want for at least part of this review to reemphasize the fun and jolly, good-natured spirit of “La Cage.” Herring and his co-director, Josh Montgomery, have crafted an intimate, fiercely funny show that feels fresh even more than 35 years after its Broadway debut.

The plot is recognizable to anyone who saw the movie “The Birdcage.” Albin and Georges (a meaningful and moving Terry Lewis) run their club on the French Riviera with humor and perhaps a little terror. (I’m not sure they make the greatest bosses.) Every night their hard-working chorus line, Les Cagelles, performs, with ZaZa as the star attraction. When Jean-Michel (Ryan Torres) arrives for a visit, he brings wonderful (and devastating) news: He’s getting married. The problem is that his fiance’s father is a leading “pro-morality” French politician clamoring for such establishments as La Cage Aux Folles to be closed.

StageWorks Fresno

Joel C. Abels, left, and Terry Lewis in ‘La Cage Aux Folles.’

The Dan Pessano Theatre is so cozy you feel like you’re in the club itself, and Herring and Montgomery use these close quarters to make a point. This is not a show about spectacle but about intimacy, and the scenic design (by Abels) reflects that. One of the things about seeing “La Cage” on Broadway in a big, ornate theater on a proscenium stage was that it made the “show within the show” feel more extravagant than need be. Yes, La Cage is a famous club, but it’s also a small and seedy one (at least in my mind), which is part of its naughty appeal.

The six young men who play Les Cagelles form what you might call the sturdy (and sometimes surly) backbone of the show. Damen Pardo, Erik Olson, Alex Figueroa, Zachary Guerra, Emmanuel Ceja-Guzman and Michael C. Flores, performing whirlwind choreography by Montgomery, range from dainty to clompy, and it’s fun to watch each of their individual personas develop over the course of the evening. (Both front stage and backstage, of course.) The dancing is often electric, athletic and acrobatic — did they just really kick their high heels together in the air? Wow. Jacob Moon’s makeup design, Eric Gomez’s outlandish wigs and Kristine Doiel’s sparkly dresses and over-the-top costumes add to the gaudy excess of it all.

Jared Serpa has a lot of fun as the flamboyant maid — I love how he shifts his hips to the beat in “With You on My Arm” — and Mark Standriff has grumpy fun as the dastardly politician. Karen Hansen-Smith, as Anne’s put-upon mother, and a radiant Meg Clark, as Jacqueline, a fancy restaurant owner, help make “The Best of Times” scene one of the strongest in the show.

StageWorks Fresno

Members of Les Cagelles perform in ‘La Cage Aux Folles.’

I don’t love everything about the production. I’ve admired Ryan Torres in shows before, and he sings beautifully, but I don’t connect with how he’s directed here; his Jean-Michel comes across as stiff and bland. Sydney Ennis’ Anne suffers much the same fate, though the character is underwritten. Andrew Trevino is too broad as the beleaguered stage manager for the club.

Doiel’s costume design, as I’ve said, is terrific for Les Cagelles, but several of ZaZa’s dresses miss the mark by straying into frumpy territory. Finally, while I adore 90% of Abels’ performance, his character’s “front stage” persona in terms of interacting with the club audience can seem almost too brusque and sardonic for the character; I feel like ZaZa would be more flirtatious and less contentious. I realize that’s a directorial and performance choice, but it just seemed a little jarring to me.


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Perhaps the most powerful part of the StageWorks experience is the realization that this 1983 show, far from being quaint or dated, is still far too relevant. (Granted, transgender and non-binary issues are much more part of the public discussion today, with “La Cage” barely touching on those issues, but let’s focus on homosexuality and drag culture.) What hasn’t changed is that the show’s “pro-morality” politician, far from feeling like a caricature in a more enlightened present day, unfortunately seems to fit quite nicely into 2019.

Which brings me back to the front stage-slash-backstage discussion. There is a coarsening in today’s society in which “real” feelings (i.e., discriminatory and hateful speech) about such issues as race, sexuality, immigration and inequality are fair game for the public sphere. Anything goes. “Honesty” trumps social niceties.

For me, it’s a shock to learn that so many people in this country are OK with blatant disregard for the Other. For at least some of these people, unfortunately, the words “I am what I am” should be followed with “and what I am is a bad person.”

I don’t want to downplay the hope that “La Cage Aux Folles” offers: that families come in many forms; that civility matters; that bigotry is uncivilized; that attitudes can change; that love does, indeed, make a difference. But when I’m confronted with what is going on in this country today, I can’t help but feel: Sometimes what happens backstage needs to stay there.


Show info

‘La Cage Aux Folles,’ a StageWorks Fresno production at the Dan Pessano Theatre (at Clovis North High School). Continues through Aug. 11. Tickets are $30 general, $27 students and seniors.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (3)

  • Julie Saldana

    We are so looking forward to this show! Thank for this terrific review.

    reply
  • Jeanne Behnke

    Seeing it this Saturday! Definitely excited!!

    reply
  • Patricia Holladay

    Absolutely loved La Cage aux Folles! Cried during “I Am Who I Am” – it was so moving! Agree with your assessment of Ryan Torres. Sings great, but I believe part of the problem with his portrayal had to do with his braces and the very visable rubber bands. He was so reticent in opening his mouth that he never smiles, constantly pursing his mouth. Sadly, I think it affected his ability to come across as he should have.

    reply

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