Theater: Hot Number

By Charles Brousse

Every season during the 14 years that the San Francisco Playhouse has been a mainstay of quality entertainment, it has offered a special closing season summer show extended run. This time around it’s La Cage aux Folles in a production staged by Playhouse artistic director Bill English that sets a new standard for quality.

For some out-of-towners from more conservative parts of the country, a romantic comedy that features a gaggle of transvestite queens may be a hard sell, and more jaded local theatergoers may hesitate to attend out of concern that the 1983 musical by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) may be dated, or is too much of a gay polemic. To all of them I have one word of advice: Relax. This is a stunning show. Sit back and enjoy.

La Cage aux Folles (literally “the cage of crazy women”) began life as a little-known 1973 play by the French writer Jean Poiret. It was the basis for a popular 1978 Franco-Italian film, followed by further tweaks and iterations until it morphed into a full-fledged Broadway musical by the Fierstein/Herman team in 1983 that won six Tony Awards and ran for 1,761 performances over four years.

Driven by a combination of performing talent and shrewd decisions by the Playhouse’s core creative team (stage director English, music director Dave Dobrusky, choreographer Kimberly Richards, costume designer Abra Berman, scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott, lighting designer Robert Hand, sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker and their associates), this Playhouse version takes advantage of every opportunity for comic effect without sacrificing overall aesthetic quality. Most important of all, it preserves the script’s central moral issue, which is definitely NOT whether homosexuality or transvestism is good, but rather how do you balance family loyalties in a society that includes a variety of conflicting social norms? Seems to me, you can’t get more relevant to the contemporary world than that—and there’s great singing and dancing to savor while you’re thinking about it!

Cage’s plot revolves around the relationship between George (a sympathetic Ryan Drummond), who owns and manages the Saint-Tropez transvestite-themed cabaret that provides the musical with its title, and Albin (a flamboyant John Treacy Egan), his gay “wife” of 20 years, who stars as the drag queen Zaza in the establishment’s nightly review.

George’s 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn), offspring of a brief heterosexual fling, suddenly appears with his fiancé, Anne Dindon (Samantha Rose). Although he has been raised considering George and Albin to be his parents, he has now invited Anne’s super conservative mother and father to meet George and his real mother. That sets up a crisis for everyone involved. In order not to offend Anne’s parents, he asks George to pretend to be a retired diplomat, tame down the decor of their apartment and disguise the nature of his cabaret. His most controversial request is that Albin, who has helped to care for him throughout his life and loves him, be excluded. The result is pathos for Albin, ethical agony for George and high humor for the audience. I won’t go into details except to say that there is a happy ending.

Perhaps a bit too happy. My only caveat with the show is that the senior Dindons are converted to a more tolerant outlook without enough of a struggle. But, nevermind. When George bounds down the runway to introduce “Les Cagelles”—the chorus of assorted queens who perform throughout the evening—we know that we’re in for a treat. San Francisco’s summer nights may be chilly, but it’s always hot inside the Cage aux Folles.

NOW PLAYING: La Cage aux Folles runs through September 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.