Tuesday, March 3, 2020

We Are What We Are

As Albin/Zaza, with James Patterson as Georges
La Cage Aux Folles can be enjoyed purely as a frothy farce, a glamorous spectacle, a bubble of a musical comedy.  And it is all of these things.  But if we look beyond the laughs and the glitter, there are deeper messages for us and our time--which is why the piece is a timeless classic.

On the surface, we are greeted with all the elements of classic farce: a flamboyant, openly gay couple run a drag club on the fringe of the Mediterranean resort town they live in. Their son announces his betrothal to the daughter of a homophobic politician determined to shut down all the gay clubs in St. Tropez.  Hilarity ensues.  But, in the hands of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, this story of worlds colliding takes on greater dimensions, inviting us to open our minds and hearts to a story of acceptance, self empowerment and love.

In 1983, when the show premiered on Broadway, I was a freshman in college. I had not come out yet as a gay man, and the times were not hospitable. A rising tide of conservatism had overtaken the country; the Religious Right was cutting its teeth, and gay people were a prime target of their venom.  Famous people were being outed, their careers destroyed.  AIDS had just begun to decimate the gay community and our government was doing nothing to stem the tide of what would become a global pandemic.  In response, LGBT people activated, and groups like Act Up and Queer Nation demanded equality and action to save the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS.  It was a time of great fear but also of great empowerment.... and I came out in the midst of it all.  Taking a stand for how I love and live despite these pressures--good preparation for one day playing Albin!

The original cast of "La Cage Aux Folles"
La Cage Aux Folles was a bold and risky choice for that season on Broadway--chorus dancers in full drag, a central love story of two men raising a child together, and a repudiation of the kind of bigoted politicking that was taking root in our culture.  And yet, it was a massive hit.

Fast forward nearly 40 years, to the America we live in today. A rising tide of conservatism has again taken hold in our government and our culture.  Loud voices of bigotry and discrimination abound.  It's a time of division and fear.  And here comes La Cage Aux Folles again, with its exuberant celebration of gay culture, its glitter and glamour, and its message of inclusion, tolerance and empowerment--all encapsulated in the show's timeless anthem, "I Am What I Am."

As we've been rehearsing here at Riverside Theatre these past couple weeks, another dangerous virus has started spreading throughout the world--the Coronavirus--threatening to become a deadly pandemic.  I've watched officials trying to stem the panic, and people worldwide scrambling to keep themselves safe from this highly infectious disease.  It is in such moments that we are reminded that regardless of race, color, creed, gender or orientation, we are all human: we are all vulnerable, we are all mortal.

As I prepare to play Albin--a man who, even by today's standards, is living outside what most consider "normal"--who has to plead with his loved ones and his world to accept him as he is... I remember that human beings in times of crisis, when existential threats begin to close in, reach beyond their differences. They find common ground in the name of survival.  I was in New York City during 9/11 and I remember, in the wake of that horror, the way communities reached out to each other to help, to comfort, to commune and to carry on.

After all, we are what we are, and what we are is a human family.  It shouldn't take a terrorist attack or a deadly pandemic to remind us that at our core, we all are human beings; we all want the same things--love, acceptance, a family, a future, and the freedom to live a happy, healthy life.  La Cage Aux Folles isn't a "gay story," it's a human story.  The message we are left with as we brush the glitter off our sleeves and walk out into the world smiling and humming Herman's fabulous tunes, is that we are not so different, we humans.  We all want to be happy, safe, loved.  We want to make this time The Best of Times, and live and love as hard as we know how.  Join us March 10-29 at beautiful Riverside Theatre, and feel the love.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Little More Mascara

La Cage Aux Folles has worked a sort of magic in my life--twice--setting me on new paths of experience and professional advancement.  It's a story of family, of love, of personal authenticity, decorated with sequins and infused with heart. 

The first time I stepped into t-straps and entered the glittering world of La Cage was in 1990.  I did a small, low budget production at a long defunct theatre in Framingham, MA, which was attended by two wonderful producers, Armand Marchand and George Charbonneau, who were about to launch the New Bedford Festival Theatre at the grand old Zeiterion. La Cage Aux Folles would be their inaugural production, with a full orchestra and the Broadway costumes and sets.  Armand and George swept me up to reprise my role as the notorious and dangerous Cagelle (with an attitude), Mercedes.

Summer love: with Damien in New Bedford
It was in New Bedford that I met the man who would become my partner for 16 years.  My one and only ever "showmance."  Damien played Francis, the stage manager, in La Cage and during those brief three weeks of the show, we fell in love, and moved in together not long after.  This musical farce of drag and family drama had changed the course of my life. 

Ironically, it was right after the end of my relationship with Damien that La Cage came unexpectedly back into my world.  The year after our breakup in 2006, I spent a season performing Shakespeare's "War of the Roses" plays at Alabama Shakespeare Festival.  Five months of sword wielding and verse speaking.  Right after that, I joined my friends Marcus Kyd and Lise Bruneau in DC to be part of their fledgling company, Taffety Punk's, first ever Bootleg Shakespeare production: Cymbeline. I played the tormented lover, Posthumus Leonatus, and returned to New York from the one day marathon of Bootleg, flushed with creative joy and hoarse as heck from the vocal challenge of Posthumus's ranting!

The evening I got back I got a call from casting director Stuart Howard (who cast the original Broadway production of La Cage) telling me that Ogunquit Playhouse was doing the show and that they had lost the name actor who was to play the lead role of Albin.  They started rehearsal in less than a week and had been unable to find a replacement.  He insisted I go and audition. With absolutely no clue if I'd be able to sing the show's anthem, "I Am What I Am," after my vocal exertions in the Shakespeare, I nevertheless showed up the next morning at 9AM.  I somehow found the voice to sing the song, and director BT McNicholl and choreographer Barry McNabb hired me on the spot. Five days later, I plunged into rehearsals with my co-star, handsome heartthrob Maxwell Caulfield.

As Albin, with Maxwell Caulfield as Georges
It'd take much more than a blog post to relate to you the many wonders of that production; the brilliant folks I worked with on it.  Ogunquit's La Cage brought me lasting friendships, and challenged me to step into my own as a star musical theatre performer.  Albin is the male equivalent of Jerry Herman's great leading lady parts like Dolly Levi and Auntie Mame. It takes enormous confidence, skill and endurance to deliver Albin's journey and that of his dazzling alter ego, ZaZa.  Playing the part transformed the entire way I viewed myself as a performer.

And... as fate would have it, BT McNicholl went immediately from our production to become Mike Nichols' assistant director on the Tony-Winning Best Musical Spamalot.  BT helped me get in front of the show's casting director, Tara Rubin, and, come that fall, I was cast as Sir Robin in the First National Tour.  And if you have been following this blog you know just how monumental that opportunity was for me and my career.

Well, here we are, 12 years later, and I have been invited by wonderful Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, FL--one of my favorite theatres--to lead their production of La Cage Aux Folles as Albin in 2020!  I am thrilled to take on this glittering and fabulous role again, and to be directed by cherished collaborator DJ Salisbury.  With the recent passing of the great Jerry Herman, it is truly an honor to begin the '20s performing this life affirming classic.  Will this new La Cage lead to yet another magical breakthrough in my love life or career?  Who knows.  All I feel right now is excitement!-- and gratitude for having this opportunity before me as the new year dawns. Truly, playing Albin IS the best of times.
La Cage Aux Folles plays March 10-29 at beautiful Riverside Theatre.