HART tackles "La Cage aux Folles"

Crossing dressing musical starts Friday
By Stina Sieg | Jul 01, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Meet Jacob, the Puerto Rican maid/butler/houseboy, in HART's upcoming production of "La Cage aux Folles."

What is it about men in dresses that’s so delectably delightful? Whenever there are dudes in drag, they always steal the show, regardless of whether it’s a play or a movie or one of Pisgah or Tuscola’s country music revues (where, yup, cross dressing has been a staple for years). Forget politics and ideology — men as women are just fun to watch.

So it should be no surprise that the local version of “La Cage aux Folles,” a musical that takes audiences far down the rabbit hole of the drag queen world, looks to be fabulous. Beginning this Friday, the show is gearing up for a four-week run at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre. This marks the Western North Carolina debut for “La Cage,” which has already spawned a hit Broadway show and several movies, including “The Birdcage” back in 1995.

This intro might seem a little late for a production that’s been wildly popular both on stage and screen for decades, but director Steve Lloyd still sounds a little surprised to be doing it at all. At a recent rehearsal, he explained that “La Cage” had actually been proposed several times for the last two decades before he even considered it.

“For a long time, I’ll be honest, I said we’ll never do that show,” Lloyd said. “It’s just too out there.”

Apparently not. But it did take him years to gauge the community and make sure they wouldn’t get too hung up on the drag element of the show. He’d like to believe now that people will see the show as he does — a big, over-the-top romp with a sweet core. Lloyd sounds pleased to be its ambassador.

“I like doing things nobody else does,” he said. “I like doing shows nobody else does and tackling themes no one else will tackle.”

The funny thing is that, besides the drag, the themes in “La Cage” are incredibly universal. It’s about a boy and girl in love whose parents are polar opposites. In this case, the girl’s parents are conservative and stuffy, while the boy’s are gay men, one of whom is a drag queen who performs at the couple’s nightclub. The play exists where these two world collide.

Needless to say, sparks fly — mostly because of Albin, who goes by “Zaza” when done up in drag. Famously played in film by Nathan Lane, Eric Martinez inhabits him/her this time around. Though learning to walk in heels was rough for the local musical and opera veteran, he explained that the real tricky part of being Albin is to be true the character and not reduce him to a caricature.

“Otherwise it’s just big and not real,” he said.

The point is to dig down to the humanity, not just in Albin, but in the entire farcical, sequin-filled plot. Drag queens, after all, are not really what this play is about.

“It’s about love and what it means to live in a committed relationship,” Martinez said.

His onstage partner, Rod Leigh (aka Georges), agrees. When all is said and done, “La Cage” is about two people raising a family, he explained. The show centers on what most humans — gay, straight or somewhere in between — want.

It’s about “finding that person that will care for you no matter what,” he said.

It is not, he emphasized, about him in drag. He’s one of the few men in the play who does not end up bejeweled at some point.

That’s a good thing, he joked, “because me as a woman would not be a pretty sight.”

But pretty is not the point of this show — or any drag show, really. As strange as it might sound, the daring, infectious individualism of the show’s characters are far more fascinating than their wild makeup and get up. James Hendley, who plays the young and smitten son, is intoxicated by it at every rehearsal. As Jean-Michel, he’s a straight man (so to speak) to his fellow actors’ dramatics, but he still feeds off the exuberance.

“I’m loving it. I’m loving it,” he said. “It’s so much fun. All the characters bring such crazy energy during rehearsals.”

It’s easy to write this energy off as flamboyant or stereotypically gay, but choreographer Cord Scott cautions against it. He believes the trick of this show is to treat all the characters as real, everyday people. Scott, who also plays cabaret diva Chantal, wants people to see that he and the other “Cagelles” aren’t bigger-than life, but performers with real lives of their own.

“It’s just us, doing what we love to do, essentially,” he said.

What they love just happens to involve dramatic wigs, false eyelashes and enough shiny fabric to clothe a good portion of Haywood County. All this finery may not be the heart of the matter, but Scott knows it's all part of the fun.

“And of course,” he said, “6-foot-2 boys in 3-inch heels is always a good thing.”

“La Cage Aux Folles” will run at 7:30 p.m. July 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28 and at 3 p.m. Sundays, July 8, 15, 22 and 29. All shows will be at HART, 250 Pigeon St. For tickets, call 456-6322 (from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday) or visit www.harttheater.com.

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