Skylight Music Theatre delights with fab, funny ‘Folles’

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Personal dynamics — good and bad — color many families’ holiday traditions. Such issues, along with a lot of tenderness, form the emotional core of La Cage aux Folles (The Birdcage), which is this holiday season’s production by Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre.

The families’ hassles and hugs come dressed in humor, song and the colorful costumes of an over-the-top drag show. What would the holidays be, after all, without a little rouge daubed in all the right places?

The musical — adapted from Jean Poiret’s 1973 play of the same name by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman — won 11 Tony Awards and eight Drama Desk awards when it was produced on Broadway in 1983. Those awards included Best Musical and top honors for author Fierstein and composer Herman.

“This is a big show, but it’s not just about drag,” says New York director John de los Santos, brought in by the Skylight to helm the production. “I wanted to get to the root of the family drama.”

The storyline

Those familiar with the either the play or The Birdcage, Mike Nichols’ 1996 film adaptation featuring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, know the narrative.

Georges (Norman Moses) owns a St. Tropez drag club and Albin (Skylight interim artistic director Ray Jivoff) is its star. The two have lived in domestic bliss for 20 years, but that was about to change. Jean-Michel (Colte Julian), Georges’ son from a previous liaison, arrives to announce he is engaged to Anne Dindon (Stephanie Staszak). She’s the daughter of an ultra-conservative couple involved in a movement to close drag clubs.

And now it’s time for Georges and Albin to meet the future in-laws. Trying to help Jean-Michel make a good impression, the couple tries to disguise their true lifestyle — efforts that cause no end of both hilarity and heartache.

But they are challenges not limited to gay couples, de los Santos says.

“LGBT audience members may see themselves in either Georges or Albin, but the straight audience also may say, ‘Oh God, my kid is just like that,’” he says.

The play’s resolution speaks to the importance of families — those we are born into and those we create.

Costumes and choreography

Swirling around the inner story are the drag performances that define Georges’ club. As the platform on which the show is based, the drag aspect drives much of the show’s entertainment value.

“When it was first written, a lot of the play’s humor derived from Albin’s effeminacy,” the director explains. “But the over-the-top writing for the flamboyant characters is as broad as the over the over-the-top writing for the conservative characters, who are portrayed as brutal and as dullards.”

Project Runway designer Chris March, who impressed Skylight audience with his hats and togs for the 2015 production of My Fair Lady, returns as costume designer.

The twin themes for this show’s wardrobe are ones of illusion and metamorphosis, March says.

“Things aren’t always what they seem, so there will be many quick changes backstage and in front of the audience, all in glorious live theatre,” says March, who promises “feathers and more feathers!”

The theme of transformation also is important to de los Santos, who wants to put his stamp on the Skylight production.

In this case, the costumes play a big role.

“Chris’ contributions are over the top where they need to be, but balanced in other cases. It’s all rooted in the reality of what the situation calls for,” says de los Santos, who also choreographed the production. “There are five costume changes in the La Cage aux Folles production number alone and we designed some of the choreography around the costumes.”

While staying true to the story, de los Santos likes to imbue his productions with a distinct “physicality.” Nowhere is that effort more evident than with the Cagelles, the club’s singing and dancing chorus line.

“I could not have asked for seven more energetic guys, none of whom had professional dance training before they took on the roles,” de los Santos says. “They will wear 4-foot-high headdresses and heels and twirl just as fast as I want them to. They have really stepped it up for this show.”

Drag both fun and revelatory

Drag drives La Cage aux Folles’ humor, but of course, it’s not as shocking as when the play was written.

Still, drag elicits laughs from the mixed audiences, the director says.

“I think drag is funny because of our preconceived notions of masculinity,” de los Santos says. “I think Quentin Crisp said it best when he noted that when men dress like women, everybody laughs, but when women dress like men, nobody laughs.”

The director dismisses the argument that drag performances demean women because of the way they over-emphasize feminine stereotypes, especially in relation to body image.

Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.

“Drag queens are interpreters, commentators and performers who offer different characters from throughout the genre,” he says. “I don’t know a drag queen who doesn’t fully respect the struggles women go through in a male-dominated society.”

Drag performances, like the play, are fun and revelatory.

“Life is about taking what you’ve been given, owning it and putting it out there as fabulously as you can,” de los Santos says. “That’s also the theme that drives the show.”

On Stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of La Cage aux Folles runs Nov. 18–Dec. 23 in the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 to $75 and can be purchased by calling 414-291-7800 or online at tickets.broadwaytheatrecenter.com.

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