Opera House’s season-opener, “La Cage aux Folles,” is perhaps best known for its film adaptations—both the 1978 Franco-Italian film and its 1996 remake, “The Birdcage.” Directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, the latter scored numerous nominations across the board, from the Academy Awards to GLADD Media Awards, and won Screen Actors Guild and American Comedy awards.
Before it ever hit the big screen, it was a 1973 French play that made its way to Broadway in 1983 and went on to run for more than four years. Its revivals in 2004, 2008 and 2010 respectively continued to garner praise from the Tonys to the Laurence Olivier awards. Its popularity stems from being a pillar of equal representation in the LGBTQIA community, providing roles aplenty for drag queens, gay folks, and anyone else who wants to be part of a colorful world where all are welcome.
The story follows Saint-Tropez drag-club manager Georges and his partner, Albin—the head drag queen at Georges’ La Cage aux Folles. The two have found out Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, has become engaged to a lovely girl, Anne Dindon, whom they must meet. Only problem: They also have to meet her ultra-conservative family, including her father, the head of the Morality Party, who wishes to shut down all drag clubs. In an effort to keep Albin and Georges’ love affair under wraps, they concoct a ploy for Albin to act like Zaza, Georges’ “wife.” Naturally, hijinks ensue, and what emerges is a touching tale about acceptance and love of all people, in all ways.
Putting on the high heels as Albin/Zaza is local performer and encore’s Best Actor 2019, Jeff Phillips. Though Phillips has played a number of women onstage, from Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” to Bernadette Basinger in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” it’s his first go ‘round in “La Cage.” He adores the family-oriented heart the show portrays, and likens Albin/Zaza as the male counterpart to Dolly Levi from “Hello, Dolly!” or Aunt Mame in “Mame.”
“In many ways [‘La Cage’] is the musical precursor to [television series] ‘Will and Grace’ or ‘Modern Family,’” he adds. “Albin/Zaza has been a dream role. I hoped that, when it might come around, I would be the right age for it. Being able to be in a show is often about timing. The theatre gods have been kind to me.”
Much like the family he will help portray onstage, Phillips praises director Ray Kennedy for bringing together a close bond among the cast behind the scenes, too. It has made rehearsals some of the best experiences Phillips has encountered as he’s watched Richard White (original voice of Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast”) as Georges, Mathis Turner as Jean-Michel, plus Tony Rivenbark and Suellen Yates as parents to Anne.
“Hold on to your wig!” Phillips exclaims. “I have attended almost every rehearsal. That means I was at rehearsals that I was not called for because I loved watching everyone work. I think, as a performer, you are always a little intimated by the show and/or the cast, and I think that is good. You so badly want to serve the story and not let anyone down. When everyone is so talented, you do think to yourself, ‘You betta bring it!’ That surrounding talent encourages you to go deeper and explore more.”
In Phillips’ case, it also includes dancing in heels. Tina Leak is the choreographer of the musical, which will see a plethora of styles hit the stage, from French can-can, to ballet en pointe, to tap, pas de deus, classical and contemporary jazz. The cast will marry the kicks of The Rockettes with Vegas showgirl moves, according to Leak (who actually worked for both during her dancing career). Though the choreography is quite demanding, it’s gloriously flashy and has been a bit of a breeze for Leak to oversee.
“Ray thought of everything in advance,” she praises. “Things were so well planned that this has been the easiest show I’ve choreographed, even with one cast member not arriving until December 14 and another until December 20. We’ve had fabulous stand-ins learn their tracks and rehearse with the cast—like Devon Jones who learned the can-can in maybe 30 seconds, plus Auriella Rosendahl, Chandler Wheeler, Jessi Hoadley and Ava Ellers. Blaine Mowrer is an amazing dance captain every choreographer dreams of working with! He brings so much and remembers everything.”
The 18-song musical covers show tunes, tango and tap numbers, all written by Jerry Herman. The composer “writes big and bold,” according to Kennedy. Phillips agrees, calling Herman one of the last traditionalists of Broadway, much like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter. The live music will be played by Mike Hanson (percussion), Mitch Hebert (drums), Ryan Woodall (bass), John Sullivan (keys), Casey Black (trumpet), and James lane (trombone). “The orchestra does not have a lot of downtime,” says Kennedy, whose favorite songs include the ballad “Song of the Sand” and the anthemic “I Am What I Am.” Phillips loves his first number as Albin, “Put A Little More Mascara On.”
“In two-and-a-half minutes you know why he does what he does,” Phillips says. “It is sheer brilliance to deliver that breadth of exposition so succinctly.”
As fun songs and dances, bright sets and colorful costumes draw in the audience, the story itself will pull on their heartstrings. “Las Cage aux Folles” is fun and funny, but it’s also sentimental and timely in its portrayal of unconditional love. At its core, it shows how a chosen family is just as important as any blood relative.
“It is such a beautifully crafted book by Harvey Firestein, and he has continued to tweak it over the years,” Phillips says. “I think the first scene with Albin and George is the one that got me from the beginning. It is a little fight that every long-term partnership has had, and everyone will be able to recognize who they are in that moment. I have seen it in real life and other plays. I have had that argument in my own life. But it is such a clever way to demonstrate and remark on the commonality of all relationships.”
“Las Cage aux Folles” will open December 31, for a special New Year’s Eve Gala. Tickets are $165, and include dinner, drinks, the show, and dancing and karaoke afterward. Opera House will continue its run of “La Cage aux Folles” Thursdays through Sundays, January 2-18, with tickets ranging from $25 to $33.