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La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux Folles. Book by Harvey Fierstein, based on the play by Jean Poiret.  Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Bill English. SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Bill English and SF Playhouse have a summer blockbuster that will easily win over both locals and tourists eager for some bawdy San Francisco ‘flavor’.  Fierstein and Herman’s perennial hit has had two recent local productions; SF Playhouse’s focusing more on the comic side of this powderpuff confection. But La Cage is much more than just a drag show, and like Cabaret and Chicago, there’s a deeply moving human story of acceptance, tolerance and the true meaning of familial love.

Fierstein’s story follows nightclub owner Georges and his ‘wife’ of 20 years, the flamboyant drag performer Albin (aka Zaza) as they struggle with the announcement that their son Jean Michel intends to wed the daughter of a rabid, right-wing and vehemently homophobic politician. Seems Zaza has been disinvited to the engagement dinner in favor of ‘normal’ Uncle Albert. Of course hilarity ensues, the dinner is a disaster of unnatural pretenses and love wins out at the end.

The Cagelles. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

English has cast the show marvelously, scoring a knockout with New York theatre star John Treacy Eagen (Casa Valentina, Jekyll & Hyde, Bye Bye Birdie) as the highly neurotic and wounded Albin. Soon-to-be star Nikita Burshteyn shines as Jean-Michel, the love struck youth who comes to realize that family can take strange incarnations but the thread of love and caring is constant. Longtime locals Ryan Drummond (Scrooge in Love, City of Angels) plays the ‘straight’ man to Zaza’s outrageousness and Brian Yates Sherber, returning to the stage after a six-year hiatus, shines as the sassy over-the-top maid Jacob. The rag-tag dance troupe, the Cagelles, bring their lascivious charm to the show.

Georges (Ryan Drummond) professes his love for Albin (John Treacy Eagen). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Herman’s score is my favorite of his works and includes the blockbuster Act one closer “I Am What I Am”; a number that became an anthem for defiant self-acceptance and a coming out song for generations of LGBT newbies. “The Best of Times” is probably the second most popular tune of this show, but there’s some tender love songs like “With You on My Arm” and “Song in the Sand” and the poignant “Look Over There” in which the shamed Jean-Michel realizes the power of his ‘mothers’ love.

Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn) and Jacob (Brian Yates Sherber). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Musical Director Dave Dobrusky delivers Herman’s lush score and Costume Designer Abra Berman brings both the shabby and chic to the production. The lighting (Robert Hand) and choreography (Kimberly Richards) is top notch. Director Bill English deftly walks the hire wire between high camp and tender drama.

After 23 years, six Tony awards and many regional and world productions, La Cage stills stands strong. Herman says he didn’t write the show as a militant piece, but as entertainment. He did achieve both however, and one leaves La Cage feeling happily empowered.

Performances run through September 16, 2017   www.sfplayhouse.org   415.677.9596