‘Folles’-ies: ‘La Cage aux Folles’ at SF Playhouse

La Cage aux Folles at SF Playhouse programme

“[E]ven though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste. Obviously, its metaphor of life as theater is peculiarly suited as a justification and projection of a certain aspect of the situation of homosexuals. [..] Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism.”
– Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964)

I’ve never seen any version of this story before. At least, not in its entirety. I know the original French play and film were popular enough that they were eventually co-opted by Hollywood into The Birdcage – apparently a seminal film for both my generation and the ‘90s – but I’ve never taken the time to properly sit and watch any version. I saw one scene from The Birdcage when it premiered on premium cable back in the ‘90s, but I didn’t want to get caught watching in in a house that frowned on homosexuality (I may be a born San Franciscan, but my parents didn’t grow up the way I did). I even considered renting the original French film to please my inner film snob, but never got around to it.

And, I’ll admit, there were… other factors as well. I’d heard the lone Black character, Jacob, was problematic (made even more so by Hollywood casting the White Hank Azaria to play his Latino equivalent in the US version). And I’d also heard from Gay friends that it was “the sort of fake-Gay Hollywood wants: incredibly campy and alleviating the bigoted straight characters of any guilt by forcing a happy ending on the story”. These were the kind of friends who hated shows like Will and Grace because they believed they stood in the way of Gay actors and characters eventually doing truly “dignified” work.

As a straight, cis dude, I’m in no position to dictate what is and isn’t appropriate for the LGBTQ+ community. But as a Black man, I’ll say this: there’s only so much disregard you can give our “undignified” art before you find yourself in complete denial of what is an essential part of our greater artistic voice. Black people don’t all have to be fans of explicit music, Wayans Brothers comedies, or any Black politician who supported Orangie, but we do have to acknowledge that they represent just how diverse a people we really are. I’ll never stop criticizing Tyler Perry, but I know that he deserves to work just as much as Denzel. And as an outsider looking in on the LGBTQ+ community through art and close friendship, I know that camp material like Sordid Lives or a piece of shit like Ben and Arthur must take the same consideration (and receive the same scrutiny) as M. Butterfly or Milk.

With that in mind, I recently found myself back in the SF Playhouse doing what San Franciscans have been doing for decades now: I saw a big, flamboyant Gay show.

On any other day, Georges’ biggest concern would be placating the ego of Albin, his partner and prima donna star of the cabaret drag show Georges hosts. But this time is different. What should be a joyful occasion – the return home of his son, Jean-Michel, who’s recently become engaged – is hindered by the revelation that Jean-Michel has never revealed his same-sex upbringing to his bride. Complicating matters further is the fact that the bride’s father is the very same conservative politician trying to shut down establishments like Georges’ show.

Though Georges agrees to meet the young woman’s parents, he and Jean-Michel agree that Albin must be hidden away. As the dinner draws ever closer, everyone begins to question what they’d be willing to give up for those they love. And there are some catchy songs.

And I mean that: I like the songs. They’re catchy ditties that are easy to pick up and don’t slow down the script by Harvey Fierstein. Though I still roll my eyes every time yet another film has been given the stage-musical treatment, I’m always willing to give due credit to those that are actually entertaining.

All of this is given a wonderful amount of grandeur under the direction of SF Playhouse AD Bill English, who also directed one of 2017’s best shows. Whereas that show was intimate and emotional, this one is a grand spectacle that puts all of the theatre’s resources to great use. The rotating stage from this year’s Noises Off! is back, this time featuring little scenelets within the “walls” of the moving set – maybe they’ll have Jean-Michel kissing Anne; maybe they’ll have cabaret performers acting out a BDSM scene. Either way, it’s a joy to watch.

Still, the first act goes on way too long. What’s more, I’ve now seen yet another show that marks scene transitions with full blackouts – a terrible idea, since blackouts mean that the play (or at least the act) is completely over. And yes, the character of Jacob is still problematic. It’s not that Brian Yates Sharber does anything bad – quite the contrary – but a contemporary story in which a Black man is subservient (enthusiastically so) to White characters will always be cringe-inducing. Not having seen the other versions, I don’t know what function he’s ultimately supposed to serve, but he doesn’t have any arc or any real depth to make him anything more than a caricature.

Still, English’s production has more going for it than against it.

One of the best things going for it is its cast. Not-so-straight-man Georges is wonderfully brought to life by actor Ryan Drummond. He has an amazingly sonorous voice that well serves the character’s hosting duties, as well as intimate moments, like “Song on the Sand”. Plus, watching him slip his sarcastic tongue when meeting his future in-laws is hilarious. Drummond is a great counter to John Tracey Egan’s Albin. Egan’s best choice relish the camp of this character, but make the empathy believable as well. Nikita Burshteyn and Samatha Rose are adequate as young lovers Jean-Michel and Anne, respectively. The young man’s parents are given more substance, but they youngsters serve their characters well. As do Christopher Reber, Adrienne Herro (the in-laws), and the aforementioned Brian Sharber as Jacob.

One of the stand-outs is Lee Ann Payne as restaurateur Jacqueline. Always wanting to be the center of attention, her quick thinking at a crucial moment winds up saving the central family in the end. And Payne is clearly having a lot of fun with the character.

The aforementioned rotating set is the by set designer Jacquelyn Scott, and it’s a great piece of work – all the way up to the runway that extends out to the audience. Robert Hand’s lights and Theodore Hulsker’s sounds do an equally great job of creating the atmosphere of a live show, a crowded restaurant, and a tranquil café. Kimberley Richard’s choreography suggests she would do well commanding a proper cabaret show. And I suggest everyone give a round of applause to wig-maker Laundra Tyme and make-up designer Crème Fatale (whose amazing headshots can be found on the website).

Having now seen (one version of) this show, I can see why it’s so popular. Perhaps if I’d become a fan earlier it would hold more weight for me. As it is, it’s an entertaining show, if a predictable one. It really doesn’t have anything deep to say, but what it does say, it says with style.

GRADE:                B

La Cage aux Folles is scheduled to run until the 16th of September at the SF Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours, with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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