Alliance presents outrageous, poignant family story

Special Correspondent |Posted 9/8/14

“La Cage aux Folles” is not just another well-known theater phenomenon. It’s I been an enduring hit in countless hearts ever since its Broadway premiere in 1 A1983 and has racked up enough Tony Awards to fill a game room.

Its film version, “The Birdcage,” brought in even more devotees as moviegoers watched the antics — and love — between Robin Williams as George and Nathan Lane as Albin, his partner and star cross-dressing performer at George’s St Tropez nightclub.

While “La Cage Aux Folles” literally translates to “Cage of the Madwomen” (a reference to cross-dressers being called “folles,” a slang term for effeminate men), most people know its translation as “The Bird Cage.” By either name, its story is simple enough — and outrageous enough — to pair different sets of opposites in a battle of what’s really important: Who I think you are/should be and who you really are.

George owns a nightclub, and Albin is not only his star performer but also his partner of many years. Albin has helped George raise his son, Iean-Michel. Now, lean-Michel is engaged to the daughter of upper-crust, conservative, far-right parents — including a father who is a politician — and he wants to bring his new family to meet his original family.

George isn’t having it. For the sake of peace, he asks Albin to appear as lean-Michel’s aunt. And Albin is not having that.

What ensues is what would ensue between any two people who love one another: Those stressful moments when one

asks the other to behave differently for the sake of appearance.

The rest is a romp through outrage and outrageous, the questions of loyalty and the hurt of being asked to be something you aren’t. Over-the-top hilarity, irony and great songs keep the pace quick as the players step into one minefield after another.

Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book, and Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics, took home six Tonys that first year and were nominated for nine. Subsequent revivals won Tonys in 2008 and 2010. It’s the only musical that won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical — twice.

The show’s message is simple enough: Be who you are. Love is love. And today’s families can come in endless permutations. This isn’t a gay show. It’s a show for anybody who knows the fun and challenges of being, first and last, a family.

Jamie Lawson, artistic director of Theatre Alliance, said there’s very little for him to do when a show is this brilliant.

“It’s not necessarily a show that you want to take that many artistic liberties with because the material is strong enough to carry itself. In other words, it doesn’t need my help. Nonetheless, there are some shows which are like, uh, this needs a little fairy dust, but this one is ready-made to entertain.”

Given some powerful, award-winning actors already lauded for their roles, Lawson keeps his actors focused on their own interpretation of the roles.

“They have to remember you cannot be Nathan Lane, George Hearn or Robin Williams. You have to be yourself portraying the role, and this is true of any play whether it’s had a movie version or not.”

Six live musicians and a costume graduate from UNC School of the Arts keep the show sparkling, and one of the true lynchpins of the show is Albirfs song, “I Am What I Am.” It comes after George has asked him to limit his involvement with the visiting family.

“That is the power ballad of the show,” said Gray Smith, who plays Albin. “Most people who know the show know that song. It comes at a point in the show when Albin is feeling rejected by his partner and his son whom he helped raise.”

The show, interestingly, is one that Smith, a hairstylist, played in 17 years ago for the Community Theatre of Greensboro.

“I played the son 17 years ago, and one of my clients has been begging me for 17 years to do the show again. She already has a group of people coming.”

When it comes to Albin, Smith, who grew up playing in high school productions in Stokes County, said he definitely loves the character.

“Albin is one of those people who is comfortable with himself. He’s definitely in love with his partner, George, and he is a showman. He is a female impersonator and loves performing, especially as a woman.”

What’s the biggest difference, he is asked, between his own interpretation of Albin and those award-winning performances by George Hearn on Broadway and Nathan Lane in the film.

“They got paid,” Smith said.