Thanks to the 1996 movie The Birdcage, the charming and ahead-of-its-time story of La Cage Aux Folles is well known to American audiences. Less well known to contemporary audiences is the 1978 French film of the same name, and the subsequent 1983 American musical adaptation with music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein. It stands as one of those stunningly progressive relics of the pre-AIDS era when, at least in Europe and in certain circles here in the U.S., the idea of a homosexual couple together for 20 years being the heroes of their own family dramedy wasn't so crazy and was ripe fodder for a tidy story about conservatives learning to accept libertine worlds they don't understand.
So, kudos to San Francisco Playhouse for reviving the musical and letting it prove that equality, such as it stands, wasn't won in a day, and that there was once a fictional drag queen named Za Za who helped Americans understand what a sympathetic gay person was.
The current production, which opened on Wednesday, is shouldered by two excellent vets of the musical stage, John Tracy Egan as Albin, and Ryan Drummond as Georges, both of whom have the vocal chops to stand on much bigger stages than this one and Egan has in fact once before stepped into shoes filled by Nathan Lane, who played the American film version of this character, when he took on the role of Max Bialystock in the final two years of the Broadway production of The Producers. Drummond is sympathetic and at ease in the "straight"-man role of Georges, serenading his husband of 20 years with songs like "Song on the Sand." And Egan gets to take command of the stage multiple times as the melodramatic, painfully fey Albin and his domineering drag persona Za Za, and he is equally comfortable as both and as pretend "mother" to the son he and Georges raised, Jean-Michel (played by the charming and also talented Nikita Burshteyn).
You surely know the story of the son who comes home to his gay dads to say that he's engaged and that his fiancée is the daughter of an arch-conservative politician who won't be able to accept their lifestyle. As a favor, he asks his father and Albin to pretend for a night that they're straight, that Albin doesn't exist, and that his biological mother return to fill in the role she never actually played in real life. In the stage version, the mother doesn't ever make an appearance the way she does in The Birdcage she simply sends her regrets and Albin sneaks off to don some drag and fill the role at the last minute. Also, this version takes place around a drag club in Saint-Tropez, not in Miami.
I should note that Egan gets to shine brightest at the close of Act 1 when he reprises "I Am What I Am" as a cathartic outburst after he's given the insulting news of having to pretend he didn't raise Jean-Michel.
The cast is buoyed by some other solid comedic talents, particularly that of Brian Yates Sharber as Jacob, the "maid" to Georges and Albin; and Lee Ann Payne as meddling restaurant owner Jacqueline. And the ensemble, particularly the drag troupe known as the Cagelles, all do fine work livening the stage, especially in the opening number, "I Am What I Am."
Director Bill English exhibits an ease with the logistics and tone shifts of this musical, and scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott presents an impressive set on a massive turntable that does triple duty as nightclub, apartment, and outdoor cafe. A shout-out, too, to local drag queen Laundra Tyme who worked here as the cast's wig designer.
SF Playhouse fills an important niche in the city with their small-scale yet highly professional musical productions, and La Cage Aux Folles is no exception. It's also fun and punctuated with plenty of endearing music, and you'll likely find yourself humming "The Best of Times" for days.
'La Cage Aux Folles' plays through September 16 at SF Playhouse. Find tickets here.