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La Cage at MusicalFare and the History of the Normal

Dudney Joseph as Jacob, the maid, in the MusicalFare production of "La Cage aux Folles."
The 1978 film version of "La Cage aux Folles" enjoyed an extended run at the Allendale Theatre on Allen Street in 1980. (Photo courtesy of the Courier-Express archives at Buffalo State College's E. H. Butler Library.)

The current MusicalFare production of the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical, La Cage aux Folles, provides a nostalgic look back to the early 1980s, a time when positive representations of gay characters on the Broadway stage were new and legal gay marriage in our lifetime was unimaginable.

As the Broadway opening night of the show approached in 1983, the theater world was abuzz with anticipation of a gigantic hit. They were not disappointed.

Herman, who also wrote Hello, Dolly! and Mame, provided the songs. Fierstein—hot from his 1982 triumph with Torch Song Trilogy, which was still playing on Broadway—provided the script. Broadway legend Arthur Laurents directed. The design team of Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes) and David Mitchell (scenery), who had done both Annie and Barnum, pulled out all the stops.

This was a theatrical event of historic proportion.

To add to the excitement, the central characters were two gay men, making the subject matter groundbreaking—in a way.

It bears mention that La Cage aux Folles was a hot property well before it became a musical. The original treatment was a 1973 French stage play of the same title by Jean Poiret. This, in turn, was made into a 1978 French-Italian language film, also called La Cage aux Folles, starring Ugo Tognazzi (who spoke Italian and was dubbed for the French release) as nightclub owner Renato, and Michel Serrault (who spoke French and was dubbed for the Italian release) as the drag queen, Albin.

The film was a colossal hit. In fact, it was the most successful foreign film ever released in the United States up to that time. In addition to the musical, it spawned two movie sequels, and eventually, an English language version. In Buffalo, the film ran and ran at the Allendale Theatre (now home to Theatre of Youth), which had the exclusive booking.

A February 1980 article in the Courier Express by entertainment editor Doug Smith described how the film was transforming the Allentown neighborhood. “One little movie,” wrote Smith, has “altered the character of a theater, a neighborhood and movie going everywhere.”

Smith went on to describe how interest in La Cage aux Folles was luring suburbanites back into the city: “About the third week into the run [the presenter] began to notice the suburban influx into his theater. The patrons’ fashions told him something about it; so did the complicated phone conversations in which he tried to thread [pre-GPS] suburbanites through the one-way streets of the city’s Allentown district…people [were] coming into this area with no hesitation.”

At the time, La Cage aux Folles was seen as proof that downtown could be transformed into an entertainment district. Looking back, it also seems to have been a bellwether of relaxed public attitudes toward gay people, even at time when AIDS was looming on the horizon and homophobia seemed to be raging at a fever pitch.

All three versions of La Cage aux Folles (the play, the film, and the musical) follow a homosexual couple whose grown son returns home to announce that he is engaged to marry a girl from an ultra-conservative family. Renato (Georges in the musical) is the proprietor of a gay nightclub on the French Riviera, and his partner, Albin, in the drag persona of the fabulous Zaza, is his headlining star. For one night, these unconventional parents will be required to suppress all their eccentricities in order to please the odious parents of their child’s fiancée.

The show is arguably a reworking of Herman’s previous hit musical, Mame, also based on a play and a hit film (Auntie Mame), in which an ungrateful boy comes home to the eccentric aunt who raised him with the news that his new fiancée’s family is ultra-conservative and that auntie will be required to purge the house of anything unconventional in order to please the odious fiancée and her horrible parents.

By design, everything about La Cage aux Folles—except the sex of the two central characters—was old-fashioned. Jerry Herman’s melodic music was reminiscent of Irving Berlin, and the story was positively antique. The old device of a conservative child with eccentric parents has been deployed everywhere from You Can’t Take It With You to The Munsters. Through the subversive device of comedy the idea of “the normal” is relocated. Love and eccentricity always triumph.

Even in 1983, the show’s representation of a gay couple was seen to be the farcical transfer of heterosexual norms onto two men. Fierstein happily revealed that elements of the central relationship were lifted wholesale from his own parents. The line “You old fool!” was taken directly from that relationship.

The retro nature of the show was brought into high relief when, at the 1984 Tony Awards, the show was pitted against Stephen Sondheim’s pioneering musical, Sunday in the Park With George, a complex show about the creative drive of 19th-century painter Georges Seurat. When the juggernaut of La Cage aux Folles seized the Tony, Jerry Herman crowed that his win proved that the old-fashioned musical was not out of date. Sondheim’s effort would be honored with the Pulitzer Prize.

In Buffalo, after the first national tour—which played Shea’s with Peter Marshall as Georges and Keene Curtis as Albin—there was a local production presented on the Studio Arena stage in the summer of 1990 by an independent local company with the late Kenvin Moreau as Albin. J. C. Enos was Georges. David Granville played the ungrateful son. Jessica Rasp was a Cagelle. Ross Hewitt was the lovelorn stage manager Francis. Joyce Coppola was Jacqueline. Peter Davis earned a nomination in the very first year of the Artie Awards for his performance as the stage-struck butler, Jacob. After Buffalo, the production played Rochester (where Enos broke his ankle during intermission and played the second act in a wheelchair at Memorial Auditorium).

Even after the musical version, the material proved to have commercial potential. In 1996, at a time when Hollywood routinely made American versions of successful foreign films, the 1978 film was reset in South Florida and remade as The Birdcage, directed by Mike Nichols (who, interestingly, had originally been slated to direct an abandoned musical version by Jay Presson Allen and Maury Yeston to be set in New Orleans) with a script by his former sketch partner, Elaine May, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, with Buffalo’s Christine Baranski making an appearance as the absentee biological mother of the ungrateful son.

There have been two Broadway revivals. The first in 2004, and the latter, a transfer of a scaled-down 2008 London version starring Douglas Hodge in 2010. Both versions won Tony Awards for Best Revival.

MusicalFare is the first local company to present the smaller London version, which includes Hodge’s clever Mae West and Edith Piaf interpolations and audience interactions. The production, directed by Chris Kelly, is agreeable and faithful to the spirit of the piece.

Ben Puglisi gives a strong and lively performance as Albin/Zaza. With his broad toothy smile and fearless sense of comedy, he delves into the performance with aplomb. Indeed, his invention of Zaza is diminished only by the need to do battle with his mostly unflattering costumes. Some real drag talent could have been deployed to Danny La Rue him up a bit. Note that Puglisi looks divine in the long line of a robe, but like a cross between Marjorie Main and a linebacker in the rest of his wardrobe.

While much of Mr. Hodge’s musical performance is skillfully recreated here, the deft nuance of the scene work has been given short shrift. The contrast between the intense bond linking Georges and Albin and the tension in the relationship of M. and Mme. Dindon (not to mention the pronunciation of their name) has been glossed over. The palpable sentiment of moments like “Song on the Sand” and the charm of “With Anne/You on My Arm” is all but ignored.

Frankly, the essence of La Cage aux Folles is the potency of cheap sentiment, which is in short supply here. Instead we tilt in the direction of unaffecting goofiness.

Moreover, as MusicalFare has been gravitating away from its staple fare of musical revues and toward book musicals, La Cage aux Folles reveals the added demands for choreography that is motivated by character and plot, and for skillful directorial attention to the trajectory of the story in a show driven by narrative. I wondered, for instance, if anyone had staged the climactic “The Best of Times” number at all. This production exists from gag to gag.

Still, the overall strength and pleasure of the production is a testament to the excellence of the material, even after numerous adaptations and derivations. And when all else fails, there is the Jerry Herman score, delivered faithfully and with great heart by music director Jason Bravo and a talented cast.

In addition to Puglisi as Albin and Gjurich as Georges, the production features steady and charming Geoff Pictor as the wayward son, Jean-Michel; Charmagne Chi as Jacqueline; Steve Jakiel and Katy Miner as M. and Mme. Dindon; Sarah Blewett as the fiancée, Anne; irrepressible Dudney Joseph as Jacob the maid; Nicholas Lama as stage manager Francis; Kevin Donohue as Hannah; Matthew Iwanski as Chantal; Marc Sacco as Mercedes; and Raphael Santos as Phaedra.

La Cage aux Folles continues through October 13. See On the Boards for details.