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‘La Cage Aux Folles’

Skylight stages a musical with that certain something

Nov. 1, 2016
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Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the title La Cage Aux Folles and you’re liable to get any number of different responses—and all of them accurate. To some, it conjures the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret. To others, it’ll bring to mind the charming 1978 feature film. Other people will recall the Broadway musical of 1983 which went on the garner nine Tony Award nominations—of which it won six, including Best Musical, Score and Book. Still more people will think of the highly successful 2004 and 2010 Broadway revivals, the 2011-12 U.S. national tour, the 1996 film The Birdcage or, if they’re locals, maybe even a certain bar in Walker’s Point. So many possible correct answers should tell you something. 

That “something” is that La Cage’s central story of Georges and Albin—a gay couple who encounter some (shall we say) “challenges” when the former’s son seeks to introduce his father to his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents—is one perfectly suited to the dramatic stage. Georges’ son (Jean-Michel) wants no drama, however; instead, he wants Georges to present himself as just a “normal” dad. Georges, wanting to please his son, is (grudgingly) willing to play along with such a charade. It won’t be easy. For one thing, Georges manages a nightclub that features drag performances, of which Albin is proudly a major attraction. Albin is not at all pleased with the idea of “butching it up” for Georges and Jean-Michel: a seemingly impossible task. What’s more, Jacob, the couple’s butler and Albin’s personal assistant, is similarly rather effeminate by nature. As you might imagine, a culture clash looms large.

Harvey Fierstein wrote La Cage’s book. Given his gay rights activism, the piece could have become somewhat darker and taken a very serious tone. After all, many LGBTs, faced with this scenario in their own lives, have encountered intractable problems and frustration. But composer and lyricist Jerry Herman proved to be a perfect moderating influence in helping the at-times-fiery Fierstein carry La Cage to mainstream audiences—without dulling the work’s core messages of tolerance and of love trumping hate (as well as ignorance and prejudice).

Perhaps La Cage’s biggest song came about because of Fierstein and Herman’s carefully balanced collaboration. Fierstein ended Act I’s emotive scene of gay affirmation with the spoken phrase, “I am what I am!” Inspired, Herman set these five words to music, and it became Albin’s powerful pronouncement of self-worth and dignity. Thus, a strong statement became a yet stronger anthem. 

In such ways did Fierstein and Herman’s musical take shape, the duo choosing (as Herman would later recall) to make La Cage “a charming, colorful, great-looking musical comedy; an old-fashioned piece of entertainment;” and “by delivering their sentiments in a sweetly entertaining manner,” they would succeed in reaching deeply into the hearts and minds of a far wider audience than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed, their masterful musical has seen productions over the world—from Australia to Germany; from Great Britain to Mexico; from South Korea to Hungary; and from Panama to Milwaukee. 

Skylight Music Theatre is preparing a really fine La Cage Aux Folles for local audiences. Two Milwaukee favorites, Norman Moses and Ray Jivoff, will star as Georges and Albin, respectively. Moses starred in last season’s Skylight production of My Fair Lady as Henry Higgins and has been featured in productions by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Jivoff will be marking his 25th Skylight production with La Cage and is the company’s current interim artistic director. 

Veteran of stage productions at the Kennedy Center as well as with the Dallas, Fort Worth and Arizona Operas, John de los Santos, makes his Skylight debut as director and choreographer. As de los Santos has said of the work, “La Cage is really a piece about loving each other and embracing who you are. Most of all, it is a story of family—in every sense of the word. In many ways, it is a classic, glitzy, old-style Broadway musical.” Finally, costume design for Skylight’s La Cage will be by Chris March—a veteran of Bravo TV’s “Project Runway,” fashion designer and critic who boasts Madonna, Beyoncé and the Cirque du Soleil troupe amongst his many clients. La Cage is March’s second Skylight production; he previously designed the highly acclaimed costumes for their 2015 run of My Fair Lady.

Skylight Music Theatre’s La Cage Aux Folles runs Nov. 18 through Dec. 23 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

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