Tuesday, March 31, 2015

La Vie La Cage

Managed to catch La Cage Aux Folles by 9 Works Theatricals last Friday, and enjoyed it so much I simply had to do an encore for their final performance Sunday afternoon.

What to say, what to say, really?

First off, I thought the production was appropriately splendiferous. The glitter, the glam, the shimmer and sparkle of the titular, legendary St. Tropez cabaret was captured in the fabulous costumes, dazzling confections created by members of the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines. The stage sets by Mio Infante also evoked the ambience of the French Riviera, both in the interiors of Chez Georges et Albin, and the exteriors representing the resort town of St. Tropez.

The choreography and music were energetic, impressive, and riveting. The Cagelles - singly and as a group - fulfilled their promise in the opening song "We Are What We Are" that "you'll love us once you get to know us." Indeed, how could you not love the breathless tap dancing, the raunchy can-can, and the various individual vaudeville acts ( Hannah from Hamburg, j'adore!) ?

Indeed, La Cage gets off to a grand, fabulous start, and sets off from there like a psychotic horse towards a burning stable. 

But the musical play wouldn't have endured as a Broadway favorite if it didn't have more than razzle-dazzle to offer. And at its heart, La Cage is a very human story about perception, discrimination, and the things we do for love.

For those who haven't seen The Birdcage, the 1996 movie adaptation starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, a short synopsis would be in order. Georges and Albin (aka Zaza) are old lovers: the owner/emcee and the star, respectively, of the bawdy and beautiful Club La Cage - a famous cabaret featuring a drag queen revue. Georges has a son - Jean-Michel - from a brief fling with a beautiful English dancer named Sybil, who abandoned the boy to the care of the gay couple. Albin has, together with Georges, brought up Jean-Michel as his own flesh-and-blood son.

Jean-Michel comes home from university one day and announces that he is planning to get married to a beautiful girl named Anne Dindon. There's just a petit crise - Anne's father is the notoriously ultra-conservative Monsieur Edouard Dindon, the head of the Family, Tradition, and Morality Party that has threatened to sweep the Riviera clean of "immoral" establishments - such as the Club La Cage.

Anne's parents are coming over to meet their prospective in-laws, and Jean-Michel, eager to get their approval, wishes to present a "normal" family facade to the Dindons. That means inviting over his biological mother, Sybil, to pose as his father's wife. But more than that, it also means getting rid of Albin - and everything he represents - for one night.

Heartache - and hilarity - ensues.

In the role of Georges, Michael de Mesa is a revelation. Primarily because at some 50-plus, he remains a stunningly good-looking man. And secondly, the veteran actor brings a winsome accessibility to the character (which has been portrayed more gruffly in the original 1973 French film, various Broadway productions, and the Hollywood version with Williams). de Mesa's vocal range can be limited - he can be heard straining in some of the numbers, and in others his voice threatens to dip into nothingness in the low notes - but the emotion behind his delivery more than makes up for it. As a matter of fact, for the more emotional numbers like "Look Over There," de Mesa's breaking voice adds a definite resonance to the song.

Because I don't watch TV nor follow the local showbiz news, I don't know Steven Silva from chopped liver, but as the lovestruck but misguided son Jean-Michel, he brings a youthful joie de vivre. His pleasant tenor encapsulates the hopefulness and naivete of young love in the upbeat ditty "With Anne On My Arm." And while the character can come across as an ungrateful jerk and a spoiled brat, somehow Silva's pleasant good looks leaven Jean-Michel's less-than-stellar personality flaws.

As Jean-Michel's objet d'amour, Missy Macuja-Elizalde (alternating with Joni Galeste), brings a combination of fresh-faced innocence and a certain continental je ne sais quoi to the Dindon ingénue. Macuja also does double-duty as one of the chorus girls, and her balletic pedigree certainly comes across in her very physical dance routines. Lisa Macuja's little girl has grown into a voluptuous young woman, and in a rather risqué outfit later on in the show, young Elizalde's patrician features, coupled with her full figure, reminded me of the riveting sensuality of Manet's Olympia. It would be interesting to see her tackle more daring and mature roles in the future.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention young but veteran thespian Noel Rayos. As Jacob, the family's unhinged butler/maid who desperately wishes for a chance to be a Cagelle, Rayos chews the scenery and threatens to upstage the principals as he struts through a series of hilarious costume changes. Jacob's entrances and exits are an outrageous parade of characters from various musicals, ranging from Little Orphan Annie to Cho-Cho San to the Mother Superior in Sound of Music. Rayos' Jacob is the comedy relief in a musical full of comic reliefs - a feat heroically performed by Hank Azaria as Agador in The Birdcage. Those are mighty big shoes to fill , but Rayos squeezes into those heels with madcap abandon, to the delight of the audience.

But of course, the star of the show is the Great Zaza/Albin, and Audie Gemora delivers a bravura performance. It's one of those transformative, transfixing star turns in which an actor inhabits the role so completely you stop seeing the actor and behold - and believe - the character instead. As Zaza la Diva, Gemora is all sassy bump n' grind burlesque, a confident queen holding court onstage. As the comically-fraught and hysterical Albin, he clearly takes his cue from Nathan Lane's take in The Birdcage, and he channels Lane's Albin not just through his acting and vocal performances, but he physically resembles Lane, as well. 

Gemora and de Mesa have great chemistry, and it was delightful to hear the audience so kilig over the lambings of this old gay couple. And that's one of the beautiful things about this musical: while it's very much a story involving gay men, it's not just a story about gay men. The longing, the love, the striving for acceptance while maintaining individual identity are universal themes, and the Gemora/de Mesa coupling manages to transcend the confines of sexual orientation. Their Georges and Albin come across to the appreciative audience as just another couple with their ups and downs, their silly little bickering and their big hurtful fights.

Just like "normal" people.

But while it takes two to tango, Gemora, a multi-awarded and veteran stage actor, is the heart and soul of this story, and delivers the evening's high point with his spare, wounded, powerful rendition of the musical's most famous song "I Am What I Am."

The song itself (from which the entire musical sprang) is familiar to anyone who's ever seen a drag revue or attended a Gay Pride parade, thanks to the commercial Gloria Gaynor version. But while the lyrics themselves speak of empowerment, in the context of the musical itself, "I Am What I Am" is more poignant, more vulnerable. Paradoxically, it's the pathos that makes the piece more potent.

There's a fascinating story about the song and how it gave birth to the whole musical:

Holt and Brown had produced the 1974 revival of Gypsy directed by Arthur Laurents, and they approached him with an offer to direct their new venture. Laurents was not a fan of drag or camp entertainment and thought Holt and Brown never would find enough investors to finance a gay-themed project at a time when, during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, homophobia was more intense than ever. He agreed only because Holt and Brown were close friends and he wanted them to remain on (Alan) Carr's payroll as long as possible, but his interest grew when he learned Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman had committed to the project.
According to Laurents, when he met with Fierstein and Herman for the first time, they had restored both the title and locale of the original play but had neither a script nor even an outline for the plot. All they had was the Herman song "I Am What I Am," and Laurents immediately envisioned it as an emotional outburst sung at the close of the first act. Laurents further claims that when he explained his concept to Fierstein and Herman, he inspired the direction they took in writing the musical. Herman tells a very different story in an interview included in the original cast CD. He claims that they were well into the collaboration when Fierstein arrived one day with an emotional fiery scene he had written for the end of Act I that included the words "I am what I am." Delighted, Herman asked to use the five words, boasting that he would have a song by morning, which he did.

It's no surprise that "I Am What I Am" has become a global anthem for gay pride. Its lyrics are affirmative, defiant, and empowering. Nevertheless, even in the creation of the musical, some concessions to the general heterosexual community (and sensibilities) had to be made:

With gay-activist Fierstein and the political Laurents on board, the show could have "become a polemic diatribe on gay rights." However, Herman was a moderating influence. Having suffered a series of disappointments with darker-themed shows since 1969, he was eager to score a hit with a mainstream, emotional, optimistic song-and-dance entertainment that middle-class audiences would enjoy. The team opted to create "a charming, colorful, great-looking musical comedy - an old-fashioned piece of entertainment," as Herman recalled in his memoir Showtune. By "delivering their sentiments in a sweetly entertaining manner," the team was able to convey their gay-themed message with more impact than they could have with a more aggressive approach.

La Cage Aux Folles opened on Broadway on August 21, 1983, and the rest is musical history. The original production won six out of nine Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical.

The local cultural scene was very busy first quarter: between the many offerings of the Fringe Arts Festival, and the various PETA and CCP productions, it was convenient for me that La Cage had a longish run. But if I had managed to catch La Cage when it opened last February, I would've probably seen it every weekend. 

It was just that fucking good. And the last time I felt this happy after seeing a musical, Wicked was still sweeping town.

Fortunately, there are rumors that La Cage Aux Folles will have another run sometime end of June? If rumors prove to be true, do be sure to catch this wonderful, funny, sentimental, and touching show, and bring your own outrageous entourage. It had a special resonance for me, not just as a gay man, but more pointedly as an ex-owner of a club that also featured cabaret performers and their wild antics, their big heartaches, and the general rambunctiousness and unpredictability that make life la vie la cage aux folles.*

To director Robbie Guevarra and everyone involved in the production: Brava!


*La cage aux folles literally means "the cage of mad women." Folles is also slang for "effeminate men" aka "queens."

The more you know.