Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Harvey Fierstein

“La Cage Aux Folles” Offers Laughs and Lessons at Candlelight Pavilion

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion's production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical "La Cage Aux Folles" kick up their heels.

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion’s production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical “La Cage Aux Folles” kick up their heels.

In 1983 a new Broadway musical splashed upon the scene. Based on a play which had inspired an equally delightful French comic film, “La Cage Aux Folles” offered up a combination of traditionally melodic show tunes thanks to Jerry Herman (of “Hello Dolly” fame), and a script by Harvey Fierstein which – like his “Torch Song Trilogy” the year before – pushed the envelope of what a production on Broadway could be about. It won Tonys for both Herman and Fierstein, as well as for direction, best actor and Best Musical. In the process it offered up, as Herman put it, a good “old fashioned entertainment” that made the story of love and expectation in the setting of a drag club more charming and accessible to a wide audience.

Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “La Cage…” speaks to a new age with the same combination of charm, humor and acceptance. How fascinating it is to see how little the show has aged in the 34 years since its premiere. Indeed, much of what was said then still needs saying today, even in the guise of sweet entertainment.

The tale is clever and funny. The practical Georges runs and emcees a famed nightclub in St Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles. His highly dramatic longtime partner, Albin, morphs into the celebrated ZsaZsa, star of the club’s show, backed by a cast of impressive drag queen singer-dancers. Together Georges and Albin have raised Georges’ son – the result of a startling one-night-stand – and now that son, Jean-Michel, has returned home to tell the couple that he is engaged to be married. The only problem: the girl he loves is the daughter of an extreme right-wing politician bent on a return to “traditional morality.” Worse, this potential father-in-law and his wife want to come meet Jean-Michel’s family, inspiring the young man to request the presence of his completely absentee biological mother, and to try to push Albin out of the scene. When his mother never shows, Albin steps in, and the comedy increases.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the musical, and the play and film that inspired it, in turn inspired the 1996 Robin Williams film “The Birdcage”.

At Candlelight, director-choreographer Roger Castellano has collected a solid cast, allowing the appeal of the show to shine as it should. John LaLonde takes command as the elegant Georges, even funnier in his attempts to appear stereotypically “manly” at times. Adam Trent makes Jean-Michel likable, allowing the potentially terrible hurt he inflicts upon Albin to feel more a matter of desperation than rejection. As Jacob, Albin’s “maid” and personal assistant, Bryan Martinez proves a howl, being as overt as his employers are trying to be subtle. The balance works tremendously well. Likewise, Orlando Montes’ solid stage manager offers yet another view of the club’s unique world.

Steven Biggs comes off just as intolerable as one would expect a character leading the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” would be, balanced well by Lisa Dyson as his initially mousy wife finding a voice for herself in the rarified air of La Cage’s world. Daniel Reyes and Rachel McLaughlan make lovely work of the cafe owners who have known Georges and Albin as neighbors for years. Emma Nosal creates in Anne, Jean-Michel’s love interest, an attractive contradiction: loving her parents, but increasingly leaning toward the world Jean-Michel sees. Karla Franko gives restauranteur Jacqueline a flair which blends well with Albin’s ZsaZsa.

Chuck Ketter's Albin invites you to "see life from a different angle" in La Cage Aux Folles

Chuck Ketter’s Albin invites you to “see life from a different angle” in La Cage Aux Folles

Still, much of the show rests firmly on the shoulders of Chuck Ketter’s Albin. It’s trickier than one might think, playing both a gay man, albeit a proudly effeminate one, and becoming a convincingly female character when called upon. In this, Ketter shines, though his singing voice sometimes lacks the power of LaLonde’s. Still, when it counts – the iconic, angry “I Am What I Am” which closes the first act – he shines, making the song the anthem it should be. And all of this is backed by eight chorus boys in convincing drag, who sing and dance with conviction.

The end result proves most satisfying. In “La Cage Aux Folles” the laughter is silliness and friendly recognition, the hurts are universal, and the denouement a victory for love in general. The songs, as Herman said upon receiving the Tony, are “simple, hummable show tunes” and just as fun as that sounds. The moment of righteousness which is “I Am What I Am” will move a stone to tears. In short, if you’ve never seen “La Cage…” this is a good opportunity to catch up, and to do so with the added benefit of a lovely dinner beforehand. Go take a look.

What: “La Cage Aux Folles” When: through October 8, doors open 6 p.m. for dinner Fridays and Saturdays, as well as Thursday September 29 and October 6; doors open 11 a.m. for lunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: adults $58 – $73, children $30-$35 meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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“Casa Valentina” at the Pasadena Playhouse: Educating an audience in fascinating style

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

The story behind the birth of Harvey Fierstein’s fascinating, historical play “Casa Valentina” makes a good tale all by itself. A collector discovered a box of old photos at a flea market, which initially looked like a group of dressed up women lounging at an upstate New York resort called “Casa Susanna.” Only they weren’t women, but men. When Fierstein was approached to consider making a play from this evidence of a clandestine cross-dressing community, his research increased his fascination, and led to this play.

Set in the earliest 1960s, “Casa Valentina” explores the specific and at the time secret world of cross-dressing men – that is, men who feel attracted to and comfortable in women’s clothing, make-up, etc. These are often men who are happily married, have kids, and are otherwise completely connected to mainstream culture, but still have a need to take on this separate persona on occasion. Misunderstandings and gray areas were and are a part of the mix, however. In a time period when not only homosexuality (though by and large cross-dressers have not identified as gay) but even dressing inappropriately for one’s gender were illegal in many states, such issues were also dangerous.

Now receiving its west coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, and gifted with an extraordinarily versatile cast, “Casa Valentina” explores much of this as we visit a fictitious 1962 Catskills retreat run by George (also known as Valentina) and his wife Rita. Along with their usual “sisterhood” of clientele, a nationally important leader of a rights movement has come to recruit an east coast chapter of her/his new nonprofit organization. This brings some unexpected baggage, heightens tensions among the group, and creates much of the drama of the piece.

There are two elements which most directly make this play work well. First and foremost is Fierstein’s ability to create rich, humorous, rounded characters who can open worlds to his audience. His is a gift not unlike Neil Simon’s: the ability to say something serious, yet inject humor at just the right moments to keep that serious focus from becoming maudlin. Second has to be the seamless ensemble of an adventurous cast. Each of the men make remarkable work of their transitions, not just in dress but in carriage and style.

Robert Mammana proves pivotal as George, whom we watch move in and out of his alter-ego, all the while carrying a nervous energy founded on George’s legal and economic problems. As the wise-cracking Albert/Bessie, Raymond McAnally radiates the joy of a man totally comfortable with embracing his female side in an atmosphere of acceptance. Mark Jude Sullivan vibrates with practicality as George/Valentina’s friend Michael/Gloria. Lawrence Pressman offers the long view as the older, specifically genteel and gently open-minded Theodore/Terry. John Vickery’s commanding judge, and wary Amy, each underscore many of the themes of the piece.

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Still, perhaps the most fascinating characters have to include James Snyder’s careful neophyte, as his character Jonathan takes on the persona of Miranda for the first time. As activist, even zealot Charlotte/Isadore, Christian Clemenson makes an extremely convincing middle-aged woman – a point of which her character is very proud. As the center of the self-created storm which powers the piece, this is essential. Also fascinating, and poignant, is George’s wife Rita, played with a wry wistfulness by Valerie Mahaffey. Indeed, it is her dilemma at play’s end which brings the struggles of all involved into particular focus.

Director David Lee truly “gets” all these characters and their sense of need, emphasizing a sense of normality and humanness throughout. This in turn allows the themes of the play to air without the potential tensions which could be associated with any less genuine approach. Tom Buderwitz has outdone himself with the show’s set, which rotates from outside to porch to inside, and displays upstairs and down, as men transform and socialize, get silly and get drunk, and enjoy being themselves. Kate Bergh has created costumes which enhance the characters of individuals and emphasize the time period with seeming effortlessness.

What proves most engrossing, by the end, is this entire hidden society of straight men whose unique predilection left them as much in the closet as any other living outside what society thought of as a norm. Within all of this the concept of intolerance, and the forms it can take even within a culture hiding from the world, leaves one absolutely fascinated. For this we have Harvey Fierstein, a long-since disappeared Camp Susanna, and a box of old photos to thank.

What: Casa Valentina When: Through April 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, plus premium seating at $125 Info: http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org or (626) 356-7529

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