“It’s going to be a fabulous production,” says Frank Labovitz, costume designer for Signature Theatre’s La Cage Aux Folles. “Matt really has found a core to the show emotionally, but still given it room for fabulous spectacle.”
Indeed, Matthew Gardiner had long wanted to direct La Cage.
“It’s a show that I have seen many times on stage, and never felt like it jelled in the way that I wanted it to,” he says. “I’ve always felt, ‘Oh, I wish I could get my hands on that to try and see if what I feel is in the piece, can come to light on stage.'” He got his chance when Signature’s Artistic Director, Eric D. Schaeffer, put La Cage on the 2015-16 season.
The 32-year-old director appreciates the inherent tension between composer/lyricist Jerry Herman’s “everything in life is beautiful” optimism and book writer Harvey Fierstein’s snark and grit. Yet he also realizes that not everyone will be enthusiastic about another production of the 1983 pro-gay musical, adapted from Jean Poiret’s 1973 French farce. (Never mind that there are also multiple films derived from the source material, including Édouard Molinaro’s 1978 original, a French-Italian co-production, and Mike Nichols’ 1996 Hollywood remake, The Birdcage, starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.)
“There is a segment of gay men, when you tell them you’re working on La Cage Aux Folles, who groan,” Gardiner says. “They think it’s offensive. They think it paints gay men as clowns.” Gardiner had a similar reaction to the 2010 Broadway revival, feeling that the drag was too lowbrow and the portrayal of lead character Albin, who spends much of his time in drag as Zaza, was off-kilter. “It’s a hard balance to find,” he says. “You don’t want him to feel like a baritone in a dress. At the same time, you don’t want him to come off as a court jester.”
Gardiner cast Bobby Smith as Albin/Zaza — a potentially risky move, as the actor had no previous experience wearing women’s gowns. Fortunately, Smith proved to be “a natural,” and it’s ultimately because of the award-winning Signature veteran that the production took shape.
Smith is modeling his portrayal in part after the late British female impersonator Danny La Rue. “La Rue was a performer — a man in a frock — and it was meant to be a joke. But he did not live his life in an openly gay manner, and Albin can’t do that, either.” In fact, the central tension in the show revolves around whether Albin will be accepted for who he is, particularly by his adopted son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlan), and the boy’s future father-in-law, an anti-gay politician.
“We have the conservative right wing element in the show,” says Brent Barrett, who stars opposite Smith as Albin’s husband, Georges. “We could just substitute Ted Cruz in there for that. As far as LGBT issues have come, there are segments of our society that are still living in the Dark Ages.”
The fact that Smith and Barrett, a Broadway veteran (Chicago, Annie Get Your Gun), are both gay is another key to the production. “Having two gay men in those roles is not something we see very often,” says Gardiner. “I actually can’t think of any production I’ve seen…where the two actors were gay. I think it feels different, and it lands in a different way.
“What I have been trying to do…is to find the soul in La Cage. At its core, it really is about celebrating what makes us different, and at the same time understanding that we’re more alike than we think. And that family is family, no matter how we define it…. It is far beyond a frivolous, silly show with men in drag.”
Gardiner worked with his design team to ensure that the setting wasn’t “any old drag club.” Set in 1979, the club “is meant to be the place that people went to in St. Tropez, something they wouldn’t do anywhere except in this vacation spot. It’s not a gay bar. I think a lot of times you see productions where it misinterprets the Cagelles as a contemporary drag floor show, and that’s not what it is.”
The Cagelles are high camp — a sharp contrast to Jacob (DJ Petrosino), Georges and Albin’s maid. Jacob isn’t glamorous, but is funny and relatable. “He is so over the top and so campy that it frees the other characters, in terms of their looks, to be a little bit more realistic,” says Labovitz.
The Cagelles are, of course, showgirls, and Labovitz has designed elaborate, extravagant outfits for them. It’s given him a sense of scope and international flair that’s different from any other work he’s done.
“Hopefully, when it all comes together, it will really fulfill our vision of both showing the fantasy world of the club but never overshadowing the story of a family and trying to come to terms with what it means to accept each other,” Labovitz says. “I think that’s the most important part for all of us — the idea of what this family is at the core. And that’s sort of the message behind La Cage.”
La Cage Aux Folles runs to July 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $95. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.
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