A week after its first previews and the accolades have been pouring in for “La Cage aux Folles,” the latest musical hit of 9 Works Theatrical Productions. To cut to the chase, the production directed by Robbie Guevara deserves every positive review and all the standing ovations that reportedly greet the cast members at the end of each performance.
Guevara’s rendition of the story about two gay men—one of them a transvestite who is also a famous nightclub performer—dealing with the impending marriage of their heterosexual son to an equally straight girl who has a homophobic father, hits all the right notes. The humor that springs from the material is all-too human, derived from the impossible situation the characters find themselves in.
Although it would have been too easy and perhaps too tempting, not once do the actors play it for laughs or degenerate into slapstick. That in itself is an accomplishment. In the titular nightclub setting where the ensemble members who play the drag queens have to act out their acquired femininity to the extreme, exaggeration itself becomes a finely tuned instrument that highlights the other emotions being given focus in one scene, from joy to sarcasm to sadness.
And there would have been plenty to exaggerate in this musical. A lesser director could have just focused all his emotional and scenic firepower on the choreography, the costumes and the riveting dance numbers. The flow of sequins and silk, and the distinct S&M whip that adorns the costumes—designed by members of the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines—add further brilliance to the production design conceptualized by Mio Infante.
But Guevara and company ensure that this is not a variety show where the audience waits for the next musical number while suffering through the acting in between. When the Les Cagelles do their conga and tap dances, they are not just performing. The gay community in that nightclub they are embodying is joyously and unashamedly proclaiming its uniqueness and identity. Every dance number is an anthem that subtly ushers the audience into the next plot twist.
It is an anthem that requires courage. Today, many of us do not think twice about applauding a sexually divergent performance like “La Cage aux Folles,” both the fictitious nightclub and the real-life production.
But times were very different 30 years ago when Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman wrote the libretto and composed the music, respectively. Homosexuality was not yet as widely accepted in society, and the AIDS epidemic had those outside that world scampering away in fear. Drag queens were the object of scorn, which made “La Cage’s” defiant theme song, “I Am What I Am,” such a resonant, eloquent reply to longstanding prejudice and discrimination.
Fierstein and Herman’s musical created its own untouchable haven, not just in the La Cage nightclub but also in the relationships established throughout the years by Georges (Michael de Mesa), his transvestite-wife-cum-nightclub-star Albin (Audie Gemora) and their performers. At the end of the day, La Cage aux Folles is a family, alternately clawing at, fighting, supporting and loving each other.
And in this world, it is the “heterosexuals” who are regarded as weird, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way. They come in like unwelcome invaders, forcing Georges and Albin into an uncomfortable dilemma: They (or at least one of them) have to act straight, if their son is to be allowed to wed the love of his life.
The straights are the ones who are almost stereotyped—the bigoted legislator (Raul Montesa) would rather disinherit his daughter Anne (Joni Galeste) than see her married to a gay man’s son, and his unhappy wife (Sheila Francisco) secretly envies the life that more liberal folk
And then there’s the spoiled Jean-Michel (Steven Silva), Georges’ only child who, for the sake of his own love life, forces his dad and Albin, who has cared for him since childhood, to hide who they really are.
In contrast, Georges and Albin are roundly fleshed human beings. Gemora’s flamboyant old queen Albin is a diva who won’t take crap from anybody. She can be demanding, manipulative and domineering, but underneath all that dazzle is a protective spirit and a sensitive heart.
Albin turns heads with every change in costume and every rise of voice inflection. So does Gemora in a sterling performance that makes the audience understand and sympathize with this complex character.
De Mesa’s loving, patient Georges is the perfect counterpoint. He is the yin to her yang, the solid rock to Albin’s waves of passion. Yet this gentleman is not overshadowed by his wife’s tantrums and emotional outbursts.
Georges’ love songs to woo his wife are touching enough, but it is De Mesa’s silences that can sometimes be most affecting—the look on his face, for instance, when Albin storms out of the stage at the end of Act 1. Or, to the great laughter of the audience, the utter look of incomprehensibility on his face when Albin joins the family dinner she wasn’t invited to—this as a fully-clothed, fully-formed woman.
A bow must also be given to Noel Rayos who plays Albin’s devoted maid (er, butler). Rayos and Gemora reenact to a greater degree the pair of gay partners-in-crime they had essayed in last year’s “The Producers.” The rapport between the two men is evident at the onset, without creeping into the bonds that Gemora has already established with De Mesa.
Guevara lets Rayos totally loose in this production, and his various turns as Japanese geisha, French butler and the orphan Annie, among others, are showstoppers. But again, the seasoned performer in Rayos knows his parameters. He knows when to pull back and rein himself in, allowing his co-performers to respond to him. He also knows when his time is up to depart the stage, regardless of the huge laughter egging him to continue on.
All’s well that ends well in this production. Love finds a way and acceptance is given its place in the sun. The road to that resolution is not easily reached, but Guevara and company make it an unforgettable and liberating experience.