Aug. 24, 2007
La Cage perfectly cast;
Broken Strings shows potential
by David Ollington
In the early ‘80s, playwright Harvey Fierstein and composer/lyricist Jerry Herman sculpted a Broadway musical version of the 1978 French film La Cage aux Folles. The farcical story of the film translated fluidly to the musical stage. Boy proposes marriage to girl. Both pray their respective families will get along. In this case, the owner of a gay nightclub and a drag queen raised the young man; staunch political conservatives parented the young woman.
The plot also served as inspiration for the 1996 film The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The enormous inherent love has allowed this endearing story to strike gold in each manifestation. Despite the cross-dressing and the alternative lifestyle (or perhaps because of them), La Cage emphasizes family priority, parental care and traditional values.
Theatre producers know that traditional musicals put butts in the seats. Laughs, love and lilting melodies bring in the public. Cynthia Levin, artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, by putting La Cage made an appropriate choice, balancing both artistic vision and financial need.
Levin begins the production with an impassioned, enthusiastic plea to every audience member to look inside their hearts and checkbooks to make a donation for the completion of their new space, the Jerome Stage, scheduled for completion in early 2008. This will be an additional working stage space. The Unicorn rolls on a fast track, and mounting a feel-good, family values musical will add fuel to the pot.
Perfectly cast, given the intention of the show, is Late Night Theatre icon Ron Megee as Albin/Zaza, the star drag queen of the nightclub, La Cage aux Folles, and the matronly figure in the life of the young man, Jean-Michel, played beautifully by Brandon Sollenberger.
Megee, rightfully so, holds status as one of the most beloved and in-demand performers in the area. Putting his photo on the cover of the program, adding his name into the La Cage equation, makes artistic and economic sense.
The role of Albin proves vocally challenging for Megee, but it doesn’t matter. The Megee aesthetic relies on physical comedy, irreverent improvisation and awkward dealings with theatrical conventions.
During the anthem “The Best of Times is Now,” Megee literally swings from the rafters. As Albin prepares to go onstage as Zaza, Albin’s butler (who insists on being called a “maid”) Jacob/Claudine (Christopher Barksdale) applies duct tape to Megee to better feminize his masculine groin.
“You gave me a camel toe,” Megee comments to Barksdale, one of liberties Megee takes with Fierstein’s script.
Gary Mosby designed a set with a red velvet curtain motif. A sheer curtain surrounds Accompanist/Musical Director Molly Jessup. It rises and falls so Megee can banter with Jessup, eventually trapping Megee behind, allowing him to toy with the surprise confinement.
Barksdale, on loan from the Kansas City Ballet, steals scenes hilariously and with layered dimension. He sobs with grief when Albin gets excluded from meeting the future in-laws.
Jacob/Claudine wants desperately to audition for the line-up of drag chorines in the nightclub. Impresario, gay patriarch, and Albin’s husband Georges (Jim Korinke) continually refuses to audition him. Barksdale out-dances everyone on the stage. Does Georges lack eyesight? The irony enhances the zany humor of the production.
Costumer Brad Shaw and Director Jeff Church worked with Barksdale to take some jaw-dropping risks with racial stereotyping, with Barksdale playing the obsequious servant in the dinner scene, donning an Uncle Ben wig, hobbling around in shackles, and using African-American stereotyped language. Any show with extensive male-to-female cross-dressing opens the door for extreme and potentially offensive costuming, physical movement and language.
The Unicorn usually takes risks with vanguard material. For their current show, Levin took a different kind of risk, one sure to generate the needed backing.
La Cage aux Folles is colorful, sentimental, a fun musical and appropriately comforting. It runs until Sept. 9 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main. Call 816-531-PLAY, ext. 10 or visit www.unicorntheatre.org.
* * *
With the ruins of an old limestone stable surrounding the exterior of Just Off Broadway Theatre, KC playwright Bill Rogers knew the crumbling walls would emphasize the historical drama of Broken Strings. Tara Lane Productions ambitiously mounted the premiere.
Dense with themes, the gritty piece delves into Protestantism vs. Catholicism, the desperation for fresh water in the late 19th century, superstition, border disputes, the sacrifice of creative pursuits for the sake of survival, trust, violence, the justification of war and Kansas vs. Missouri.
The show commences slowly. In the first act particularly, the actors appear somewhat lost. Director Patricia McLaughlin could see to giving them clearer choices — often they merely need things to do. Rogers’ script challenges us to stay clear on the family relationships between the characters. Some simplification and understandable exposition might help.
The closing of Act I, however, provides some beauty and a touching image to bring us back from intermission. Trisha Pasdach as Annie Flynn embraces her violin. The fiddle’s eponymous broken strings represent the ravages of war. Annie used to play, and the War Between the States changed that. She sits in a rocking chair as the light condenses around her and we start to hear faint, antiquated violin music.
Act II moves with fervor. Stakes rise between the men onstage (Pasdach is the only woman in the play). Guns go off as the whiskey kicks in. The two acts differ greatly.
Nigel Delahoy plays John Flynn, Annie’s husband. He executes some effective displays of anger and brings an understated fatherliness to the part. Pasdach stays somewhat monochromatic and misses some potential variety.
Rogers wrote a beautiful line about the world in which she used to live and what she misses: “Good conversation, music, the smell of my father’s pipe.” She needs to embody the essence of each of those images to bring out more depth in her characterization.
Our history makes us who we are. Rogers’ script taps into this and holds the potential for greatness. Tara Lane Productions should continue to embrace such potential.
Broken Strings runs until Sept. 2 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre at 3051 Central in Penn Valley Park. Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.justoffbroadway.org.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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