Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
- Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Colorful, irresistibly appealing, and just oh-so-charming, this brand new local revival is a sparkling gem of a production, filled with spunky performances, eye-popping visuals, and plenty of endearing, smile-inducing moments that will touch even the coldest of hearts. This LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is directed by EWP's own outgoing producing artistic director Tim Dang, and is, of course, most distinctive for featuring an all-Asian cast led by the delightful, extraordinary pairing of Gedde Watanabe (of "Sixteen Candles") and Jon Jon Briones (a recent Olivier Award nominee for playing the Engineer in the West End revival of MISS SAIGON, a role which he'll be reprising when it heads to Broadway in 2017).
Without question, the involvement here of these two incredible actors truly elevates this production to wonderful new heights that, I must admit, bests even previous productions I have seen. Both actors give such lived-in performances that it feels like the characters were expressly written for them.
The commanding Briones plays Georges, the charismatic owner and host of the popular St. Tropez gay hotspot called La Cage Aux Folles, which prominently features female-impersonator drag acts collectively called, appropriately enough, the Cagelles (played here by Christopher Aguilar, Carlos Chang, Jonathan Kim, DT Matias, and Alex Sanchez). As luck—and storytelling—would have it, the club's true star attraction, "Zaza," just happens to be Georges' longtime lover Albin, played with divine, neurotic diva-liciousness by Watanabe. Though clearly an in-love couple, the two are constantly in a tug-of-war... which will soon be exacerbated even more.
As you watch the pair of riveting actors play an older "married" gay couple that bicker, trade witty barbs, or—awwww—later declare their love and affection for one another, you can't help but feel honored to witness such a casting coup come alive before your very eyes (and ears).
As in the original Poiret play, the similarly-titled French film farce, and even in the Americanized film comedy adaptation The Birdcage, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES also explores the dilemma that the story's comfortably "out" couple must now confront: Georges' straight son from a previous one-night-only dalliance, Jean-Michel (Jinwoo Jung), has arrived to announce the glorious news of his engagement to the lovely Anne (Audrey Cain).
The problem? Well, Anne's parents, naturally, want to have a meet-and-greet dinner to celebrate the engagement. But Anne's parents Edouard (Michael Hagiwara) and Marie (Sharline Liu) are devoutly religious and super ultra-conservative (the dad is the head of the "Tradition, Family, and Morality" Party), which means they won't likely be too happy to learn that Jean-Michel's parents are actually a same-sex couple that run an assumably raunchy gay nightclub below their home.
Though Jean-Michel clearly loves his father and the very mom-like Albin, he still begs Georges to de-gay their stylish home and, uh, perhaps hide Albin from view altogether while they're at it. Albin, understandably, does not take the "request" well, defiantly singing the musical's signature anthem "I Am What I Am" with verve and gusto. But, of course, Albin eventually agrees to the convoluted ruse of playing Jean-Michel's "Uncle Al" as a consolation because of his genuine love for his step-son.
However, to make matters worse, Jean-Michel has also asked his never-seen biological mother Sybil to come to the dinner instead, to pose as Georges' current wife.
And as one might expect, hilarity and chaos ensue when things don't go according to plan.
Fun and frothy with lots to love, EWP's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is less about stage perfection and more about the energy and enthusiasm of the moment. Beyond the lead actors' strong, palpable authenticity in their vibrant performances, EWP's revival is also noteworthy for being even cheekier, livelier, and—no joke—more engaging than prior iterations I've personally experienced.
Starting with an audience-rousing, party-like pre-show that features a pair of gyrating, speedo-clad boys without a trace of body fat between them (Cesar Cipriano and Reuben Uy) providing dance backup to a bulbously-hilarious drag queen, Jacobina (thick-accented scene-stealer Allen Lucky Weaver), this LA CAGE aims to be more fun right from the start, and handily succeeds (though, honestly, I could have gone without the beach ball being hit back and forth that felt like it was going to cause serious injury to some unaware older patron at some point).
Later, we discover that the speedo boys actually work at the club (both as theater techs and, yup, ab-tastic dancers that should be cast in "Magic Mike - The Musical" immediately), and that opening-act Jacobina is actually just the dream alter-ego of Georges and Albin's amusingly opinionated house "maid" Jacob, who himself longs to one day become a Cagelle at the club. It's quite clear that the laughs come often and are well-earned in this LA CAGE, from Grace Yoo as the deliciously overdramatic restauranteur Jaqueline to Weaver's over-the-top entrances and exits that had the audience howling.
And in one uproarious, almost borderline distracting sequence, the Cagelles even somehow double as Georges and Albin's very gay house fixtures and furniture (!), which of course their son Jean-Michel insists must be put away for the sake of Annie's visiting parents.
Aside from Dang's feisty staging and Reggie Lee's spirited choreography, the production is also purposely (and quite understandably) flavored with an Asian-centric flair that goes deeper than the gorgeous surfaces of its Asian-inspired scenic designs by Victoria Petrovich or the dazzling Asian-inspired costumes and frocks designed by Anthony Tran.
Though the names and locales remain the same as in the original story, they have been sprinkled with a generous amount of Asian motifs here and there to match the ethnic backgrounds of the actors embodying the characters. It's actually quite a lovely, seamless overall palette. A dragon-emblazoned stage curtain and kimono-like dresses compliment the illusion. Even some of the musical instrumentations emanating from the house band under the direction of Marc Macalintal feel harmonious to this particular production.
Story-wise, having an all-Asian cast adds another rich contextual layer to an already loaded universal theme of self-acceptance and having an openness to other people's differences. There's also a very familiar bi-directional give-and-take of shame and pride exuding from the story that pierced my thoughts (and heart) while watching this production of LA CAGE.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES has always been, for myself, one of those well-meaning musicals with its heart and soul in the right place, with memorable music and amusing enough characters that aim to make audiences laugh at the outlandish, farcical events, but yet (perhaps) care for and root for these characters' happiness, too. To be honest, while I have certainly enjoyed the show in the past, my affection for the musical has pretty much hovered just somewhere above the middle. It took this EWP production for me to truly relate and appreciate the show's themes and messages, now with that little something "extra." This decidedly more "intimate" production (by virtue of it being in a 250-seat theater) feels less emotionally distant and much more accessible—and not just because the actors on stage happen to be ethnically similar to this reviewer.
Color blind casting in an American production is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it has certainly been gaining a bit more traction and attention in recent years, especially on the stage (and EWP has 50 years of it in the bag). Of the various entertainment entities, the far more progressive world of musical theater has certainly shown the most enthusiastic willingness to put it into practice—often to brilliant results.
As a person of color myself (I'm Filipino, if anyone's asking), seeing an Asian actor portraying a role in a musical that has been traditionally played by another specific ethnic group that originated the role is still, to this day, quite viscerally impactful and profoundly moving to experience first-hand. Beyond a King and I, Pacific Overtures, or Miss Saigon production, seeing someone from this under-represented acting community pop up warms my heart tremendously (Ohmigosh, is that an Asian understudy stepping in as Prince Charming in Cinderella?! Woohoo!)
This, of course, is even more impactful when the performance(s) of said actor is an incredible one—as Watanabe and Briones both generously provide here. These two actors together are certainly both good enough reasons to see this vibrant, wonderfully endearing new production.
But overall, though, this unique and much-appreciated use of an all Asian cast for EWP's outstanding LA CAGE AUX FOLLES is essentially just another one of the production's many pluses... Because at its core is a really enjoyable, buoyantly expressive show that not only wears its heart on its very well-dressed sleeve but also all over its very innovative edges.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photo credit: Michael Lamont
The East West Players production of 'LA CAGE AUX FOLLES' directed by Tim Dang and in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center continues through June 26, 2015. Regular performances run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets available by calling (213) 625-7000 or online at www.eastwestplayers.org.