Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
La Cage aux Folles
Also see Eddie's review of Metamorphoses
The only musical to win two Tonys for Best Revival of a Musical, as well as a Best Musical Tony for the original production in 1984, La Cage aux Folles is now receiving a not-to-be-missed production at San Jose Playhouse with a cast that leaves one's sides hurting from laughing and one's eyes welled up in heart-felt emotion. The musical with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Jerry Herman broke many barriers when it opened in 1983, being the first Broadway musical to portray openly and proudly a gay, romantic relationship. In 2022, the story (based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret) and the music/lyrics still titillate, entertain, and declare proudly a message important for all to hear: "I Am What I Am."
Master of ceremonies Georges welcomes the audience, pointing out some of us with his big-smile greeting of "so many old friends, so many new faces, so many old friends with new faces." He is soon joined on the stage by six lavishly and outlandishly dressed "women" at his St. Tropez drag nightclub, La Cage aux Folles (translated in English as "The Cage of Crazy Women," with "folles" also being French slang for an "effeminate, gay man"). The high-heeled beauties sing a rousing "We Are What We Are," soon breaking into tap before ending with a high-stepping kick line, leaving the delighted audience with only a sample of the vast array of dance steps (the choreography is by Alan Palmer), costumes, wigs, and musical winners (Stephen Guggenheim is director) that are coming our way over the next two hours, thirty minutes.
Missing from the stage is the featured star of the club, Zaza–the stage name of Georges' longtime partner in business and in life, Albin. Albin is in their upstairs apartment, dressed in a hand-painted, see-through robe and a surprisingly modest apron while "wrestling with a casserole" and dramatically sulking because Georges has refused to allow him to revive on the La Cage stage his Salome with her dance of seven veils. After Georges capitulates, we watch through the invisible mirror of his dressing table Albin transform into the magnificently and flamboyantly attired Zaza. We also are introduced to Zaza's distinct, smokey, powerful vocals as Alan Palmer sings "A Little More Mascara." Throughout the show, Alan Palmer's Zaza and Albin personas dominate the stage each time either appears or when he shows up metamorphosed as straight-acting "Uncle Albert" (or as straight as he hilariously can) and as Georges' wife, the conservatively dressed and properly mannered "Sybil." But when Zaza brings Act One to a close with the song that has become the official/unofficial gay anthem, "I Am What I Am," Alan Palmer joins with merit the likes of Broadway's award-winning George Hearn and Douglas Hodge in creating a Zaza moment to be long remembered for its courageous, defiant, moving message.
Albin is called upon to be someone other that his deliciously effeminate self because the 24-year-old son whom he raised like a mother, Jean-Michael, is bringing to Albin and Georges' home his bride-to-be along with her ultra-conservative, anti-gay parents. Jean-Michael cannot have Albin swishing around in lace and heels, eating his croissant with a raised pinky, or talking in a voice that roams from bass to soprano in one sentence. Albin is, of course, hurt beyond words. Well actually, when Georges asks him to absent himself from their home for one day, Albin does have a lot of words to say while also dressing himself from head-to-toe in fashionable, mourning black. It takes a walk on the beach and Georges' "Song on the Sand" to convince him to do this one thing for their adored Jean-Michael.
It is Georges' "Song in the Sand" when we especially get to appreciate the deeply rich, hypnotically mesmerizing voice of Stephen Guggenheim as he once again graces the San Jose Playhouse stage. A regular standout in the past few years (prior to COVID-19), Stephen Guggenheim is well-cast as Georges, a man full of compassion and understanding for both his son and his partner yet also showing moments of impatience and exasperation with both. His "With You on My Arm" and "Look Over There" give him opportunities for his operatically trained, full and flowing voice to further wow the audience and to establish quite clearly that, at its heart, La Cage aux Folles is a love story between two men who have grown into one entity through a lifetime together at a time when being such a couple was risky–even in the overall liberal-minded France.
Through inherent charm and youthful persuasion, Jean-Michael convinces his dad and eventually even his "mom" that their household needs to shed itself of all its gay artwork and décor and populate itself with a large crucifix and religious wall hangings (part of Julie Engelbrecht's clever set design). His winning argument makes great headway when Jason Kimmel brings his pleasantly melodic, alluring vocals as Jean-Michael describes his love for his fiancée, Anne, in "With Anne on My Arm."
Jean-Michael is joined in a waltz by a stand-in for Anne–another member of the household who comes very near stealing the show every time he–she?–enters the stage. Brian Conway is rib-tickling funny as Jacob, the household's "butler" who decided long ago instead to be a "maid." When Jacob dances with Jean-Michael in the aforementioned scene, his long-lashes flutter, his toes twinkle, and his facial expression is a display of both hilarity and pure love/adoration that Jacob holds for the once boy, now young man before him. One could hardly imagine a better casting for the role of this opinionated, proudly effeminate, and unabashedly "out" servant–one who repeatedly defends with snarling snit Albin's fits and fickle to an oft-exasperated Georges.
Other members of this talented cast of eleven also have their individual moments to shine. MaryTheresa Capriles is both a member of the Les Cagelles chorus line (Mercedes) and a famed restaurant proprietor named Jaqueline, who joins Albin and the company with her A+, full-of-passion vocals in a crowd-pleasing "The Best of Times." Susan Gundunas is chorus-line member Babette; a doting and dear Madame Renaud; and the dreaded future mother-in-law Marie Dindon, who undergoes a funny but inspiring conversion from bigot to supporter that is one of the musical's important, underlying messages (that "once they know us, they will support us.") Susan Gundunas also has one of the night's loudest ovations when her Marie Dindon belts out a surprisingly bold and brassy stanza in "The Best of Times."
Jim Rupp is a whip-cracking, no-prisoners-taken drag queen named Hanna, while B Noel Thomas is a stage-commanding, richly voiced Chantel. Jackson Davis comically and convincingly plays a number of roles, including the obnoxiously righteous, no-personality Edouard Dindon, father of Anne and deputy general of the "Tradition, Family and Morality Party" (making this 1983 musical quite timely given the governors of such states as Florida and Texas). Isai Centano as the butterfly-like Phaedra and Brenna Sammon as both the chorus-line's Angelique and Jean-Michele's intended, Anne Dindon, round out the hard-working, ever-costume-changing cast.
Much of the credit for the evening's success must go to director Scott Evan Guggenheim. The show moves seamlessly through its many scenes, with even the movement of scene properties becoming part of the hilarity. With Jon Leyden's sound design proficiency, the recorded orchestra music sounds quite live and is always balanced properly with the singers. Pamila Z. Gray's lighting design creates both nightclub glitz and apartment/restaurant coziness.
No matter how many and in what combination one has already seen this story–the 1973 original play; the original, revived, or the many touring, local, or international productions of the musical; or either of the two play-inspired movies–San Jose Playhouse's La Cage aux Folles offers a fresh, fun, and funny new addition that is well-worth seeing, one that will bring both laughs and tears as well as a ton of pure enjoyment.
La Cage aux Folles runs through April 24, 2022, in production by San Jose Playhouse at 3 Below Theatres, 288 South 2nd Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit sanjoseplayhouse.org or call 408-404-7711.