Quintessential “Cage” Stands Feathers and Bangles Above the Flock

by Kevin M. Thomas, @ReelKev

 “La Cage aux Folles” returns to San Francisco. Again. Yes it was here last year. Yes it’s been a Tony winner on Broadway and has been revived on Broadway twice in the past decade. It seems whoever was going to see “La Cage” would have seen it already.

While those who don’t follow shows of feathers and bangles might not know this story or it’s history. First it was a French play (not musical)  in 1973. Then it was an Oscar nominated foreign film in 1978 that had two sequels. But mainstream audiences know it as “The Bird Cage” with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. That movie was a giant hit and brought a lot of attention to this poignant and yet hilarious story.

So why would SF Playhouse dare to tread waters that are already so familiar with theatre goers every where? Do they think they can fill a theatre through its long run through Sept. 16? The answer is simple – because they can.

They opted not to start this show in June, which is gay pride month. That would have seemed obvious and label the show as a gay themed show instead of one about humanity. But the SF Playhouse continues to bring true Broadway spirit with excellent production values to the Bay Area. So I am now head over heels in love with SF Playhouse’s Bill English and Susi Damilano, who are the artistic brains behind SF Playhouse and have blown me away show after show. “La Cage” is no exception.

I am very familiar with the story having seen almost every incarnation of this show, but I trusted in SF Playhouse to know what they are doing and they did.

From the start, the audience was transported to the nightclub La Cage aux Folles. Typically, the show has tried to create an aw moment from the minute the (drag) chorus girls come on stage, dressed to their nines in pageant queen gowns, making the audience flabbergasted by their looks being close to that of natural born women. But that was the 1980s. Today’s world, needs less of a shock value to see a beautiful drag performer, especially in our wonderful San Francisco. So instead, SF Playhouse decks out our queens in a more fetishy look – complete with whip – in the sexy, alternative costumes of Abra Berman.

Further, SF Playhouse makes their production stand out with a lot of focus on the details. That always make a difference to any facets of life. This “Cage” adds an apron to the stage, putting some of the acting closer to the audience and seeming more like a cabaret stage. They also have a few fun interactive moments. But the icing on the cake when it comes to details is the sly little sexy moments that occur when the stage is reset for the next scene. You likely don’t know what I mean – but I can’t say more without ruining the surprise.

This production is definitely a welcome back to San Francisco. Maybe we’ve seen it before – but not with such a high level of production values and top notch talent working on every aspect to make us forget other versions and make this our definite production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

While the original movie was well received, it skyrocket to renounced familiarity when it was transformed into a musical with Tony winner Harvey Fierstein writing the book and Jerry Herman composing the songs. Jerry Fricking Herman! If you don’t know him, you’re either not gay or a musical nerd. He wrote “Hello, Dolly! and “Mame” – two of the most iconic musicals (especially with gays) in the modern world.

This show is of the same caliber featuring standout songs “The Best of Times” and “With You on My Arm.” But the biggest song is “I Am What I Am,” which has become an gay anthem and really a song to celebrate everyone’s individuality and differences. Lead actor John Treacy Egan brings down the house with his rendition, making me declare this the best performance of that song I have ever heard and reducing me to tears. He should be happy with this victory as other versions I know include the dance remix by Gloria Gaynor.

Egan has the more showy role, playing the nightclub drag queen who is asked by his husband and son to straighten out before the son’s future in-laws come for dinner. Egan is masterful in his portrayal, emoting comedy and drama and making us all lick it up and rooting for him. The more serious role of Georges, his husband, also turns to realness in the hands of actor Ryan Drummond, who is a strong shoulder for Egan’s Albin. His beautiful voice makes all take notice and not just a hand for Albin to hold.

There’s not one actor who doesn’t deserve praise. Nikita Burshteyn who plays the son has the show’s most thankless role. I have never liked this character and still don’t. But the character is not the performance and Burshteyn has a voice that blows me away. So instead of wishing his character off stage, I wanted to hear more.

The gaggle of chorus queens are also wonderful. John Paul Gonzalez does, though, steal a little thunder from the other girls. Partially, of course, due to being the one on the stage with a whip. Still, he does always deserve notice and has been a name I’ve enjoyed seeing in the playbill on multiple occasions.

So if you’ve put off seeing this show since 1973, this is truly the time to go. It’s also a great production for musical nerds who need to compare notes on productions. I’ve mentioned gay and drag queens quite a bit in this review. But it’s not just for them. It has universal appeal and is one of those rare exceptions in which a heterosexual man might actually enjoy a night out at musical theatre.

Bill and Susi – thank you for raising the bar in theatre experiences. I’ve saved so much money on airfare to Broadway as I don’t need to go when I have you.

While it plays for two months, don’t wait. Unlike Broadway,  shows don’t run forever. Two months will fly by and you don’t want to miss it.

Get tickets and information at www.sfplayhouse.org.