Tuesday, June 11, 2024

La Cage aux Folles (Ovation Theatre 2024)

I grew up watching classic Looney Tunes, and my dad was a big fan of MASH. So, let’s just say that drag was nothing out of the ordinary, and I do not remember it being a huge screaming deal. 


These days, alas, anything that might possibly touch the third rail of gender fluidity or gay sex causes Right Wingers to absolutely lose their shit. The Culture Wars(™) are in full scorched-earth mode, and drag queens seem an easy target to those who need a vulnerable community to destroy to satiate (for now) their hate. 


Fortunately, even in Bakersfield (home of the Truck Nutz and Confederate Battle Flags), there are plenty of us who refuse to give in to the bigots - including our vibrant local theater scene. 


For Ovation Theater, they took on Cabaret last year, and decided to time La Cage aux Folles during Pride Month. Perhaps because Zachary Gonzalez was so damn good in drag that they had to get him on stage again. (Just saying.)


La Cage aux Folles is more or less a gay and drag riff on the timeless story of two completely incompatible families who have their kids fall in love. Jean Michel is a young man who was raised by his father - and his father’s drag queen partner - after his deadbeat mother abandoned him. He falls in love with Anne, who through no fault of her own, is the daughter of prominent right wing “family values” politician Edouard Dindon and his wife-with-the-perfect-blonde-hair. 


When Jean Michel invites his future in-laws to visit his parents, he decides that he needs to remake things a bit. His father, Georges, can just tone down the gay a little - not hard for him - and pretend he doesn’t own the most fabulous drag club on the Riviera. 


And Albin, aka drag queen extraordinaire Zaza, and the true mother to Jean Michel, has to disappear. Just for one night, so as not to spoil the match. Sigh. Also, somehow, Jean Michel’s mother has to be convinced to do the right thing for the first time in her life and show up to pretend to be married to Georges. 


Yeah, poor Albin, who doesn’t deserve such treatment. 


Of course, as anyone could predict, mother not-so-dearest fails to show, and Albin refuses to leave, and things go really badly south. 


But this is a comedy, so things will end happily…for most of the characters. Dindon gets a bit of his comeuppance, and his wife loosens up, so there’s that. 


It is surprising that this play has been on stage since 1983 - and doesn’t seem to have created the huge scandal I would have expected. It was a watershed event in gay representation - it literally showcased a loving gay relationship in an era when the AIDS panic was just beginning. 


The thing is, the play is about universals, when you look at it. The themes of living authentically, being grateful and loyal to those who showed us love, and accepting others as they are apply to every facet of life - at least if you want to live as a decent human being. 


But this musical isn’t preachy - it just lets the real emotions of believable characters tell the story. 


Done right, this musical is laugh out loud hilarious - and Ovation did it right. 


I’ll give a call-out to the ensemble, particularly the tap dancing cabaret dancers, the Cagelles - Jordan Espirtu, Cody Garcia, Nick Ono, Paddie Patterson, Spencer Prow, and Shawn Rader. Particularly Rader, who is unfairly good at so many things - he hit those soprano notes effortlessly and with perfect pitch and lovely tone. 

 Albin aka Zaza, and the Cagelles

Another shout-out to costumer Roger Upton in his final show along with his army of assistants - I know several people who put in absurd hours throwing together the numerous fabulous costumes needed for the show. Seriously, the costumes were professional-grade - as good as anything I have seen in high budget shows. That curtain was incredible as well. 


It is possible that one reason this show did not have the usual live band is that the budget was needed for costumes - but also, the score is symphonic, and the limit for this tiny theater is about 6 musicians - and I don’t know how on earth they fit that many backstage. 


I already mentioned Zachary Gonzalez, who followed up his role as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret with a stage-stealing turn as Jacob, the butler, I mean maid, I mean aspiring drag queen. From the sexy maid costume to the absurd period butler look, he was straight up hilarious. 

 Jacob (Zachary Gonzalez) and Georges (Hal Friedman)

The main characters had to carry the show, of course, and the key role is that of Albin. In this case, local theater fixture - he co-owns Ovation, and has been in so many shows over the decades - Jason McClain, who simpered and pouted and emoted his way through the show - he dominated every scene he was in. Just outstanding. I loved every minute of his performance. 


(Perhaps all those years playing Mother Ginger in our local Nutcracker performances weren’t wasted…) 


Opposite him, as the straight man….well, I mean the gay man, but the very straight gay man…and Albin’s partner, is fellow Ovation owner Hal Friedman, another veteran who isn’t on stage as much as he should be. The chemistry between Friedman and McClain was excellent - they were totally believable as long-time partners who fight like any old couple does, even as it is clear they love each other deep down. 

 Albin/Zaza (Jason McClain) and Georges (Hal Friedman)

Jesse Magdaleno took another turn as a young man struggling to do the right thing. (Last seen by me in Tis Pity She’s A Whore.) Caught between his fear of losing the love of his life, and his love for his father and step-queen, he spends most of the play doing what he knows is wrong. His decision to finally show loyalty to those who raised him doesn’t come easily, and circumstances leave him no choice, but he finally mans up and does it. (Unsurprisingly, Anne comes around far more easily - she already knows her father is a bigoted prick.) 


It is never easy to play the villain in a play like this. Dindon has no redeeming qualities, and he is not complex. Unfortunately, this is all too true to life. Having lived for many years in Kevin McCarthy’s district, I have seen all to vividly what a person with zero conscience or moral backbone looks like. 


That said, I kind of pictured Mark Prow’s hilarious portrayal of Dindon as Ted Cruz on stage. Particularly when he jumps around in circles whining “homosexuals, homosexuals, homosexuals.” (Like me, Prow is a short guy, and he hammed up the Napoleon complex a bit too.) Kat Kohler showed an interesting contrast between the brittle-as-ice Mme. Dindon we see first, and the eventual thawing she undergoes as well. 


Jordan Payne as Anne didn’t have many lines - it’s a small part, but she was fine - as were the various other bit characters that filled out the play. 

 The Dindons: Edouard (Mark Prow), Marie (Kat Kohler), and Anne (Jordan Payne)

I thought the overall vision for the play was well done. It felt coherent, and even the hurried finale made sense despite being a bit of a deux ex drag so to speak. 


The key was to find a balance between the delicious camp of the drag (which is so good if you don’t have your knickers in a knot), the inspiration of a lasting love, the tension between loyalty and fear of loss, a coming of age, and a bit of humor at the expense of bigots. Ovation brought all of this together into a coherent whole. Go see it! 


La Cage aux Folles plays through June 23. This month has so many intriguing plays going on locally, and I encourage anyone who is looking for a weekend activity to go see this one and others. Grab dinner at one of our local small restaurants, and maybe drinks afterward - Bakersfield has a lot more going on than people think. You just have to get out and do it. 


 Because of course we need another picture of Zaza and the Cagelles...


No comments:

Post a Comment