Hiding the gay in luxe St. Tropez

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday July 25, 2017
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There are occasional opportunities missed in San Francisco Playhouse's production of "La Cage aux Folles," but this musical – which has always had its own share of lumps – continues to transcend enough of all of that to convince us, at least briefly, that these are the best of times, as one of Jerry Herman's inescapable melodies so ardently insists.

When it first opened on Broadway in 1983, the musical was both ahead of and behind the times. In many ways, it was the last hurrah for the kind of musicals that had once dominated Broadway. On the other hand, at the worst moments of the AIDS crisis, it was all about homosexuals triumphing over the people who would have them disappear. But it did so in such unthreatening fashion – set in a farcical exotic world far apart from mainstream audiences – that it could at least briefly melt most homophobic resistance.

The novelty of men convincingly performing as women in a high-kicking chorus line was part of the original production's allure – during the curtain calls there was the gasp-worthy reveal of who were the one or two female ringers – but by the time the musical was back on Broadway in its third incarnation in 2010, the focus on the prancing Les Cagelles had been reduced, with the 20-year relationship between Georges and Albin offering more of the comic and sentimental center of the show.

The debonair Georges is the can-pass-for-straight operator of the St. Tropez nightclub that gives the musical its name, and where the nightly entertainment includes the featured drag chorines known as Les Cagelles. The eternal headliner is the fabulous Zaza, no longer an ingenue, who offstage is Albin, Georges' partner in show business and the business of their lives together. When the can't-pass-don't-ask-me Albin is asked to do just that, it sets the path to the musical's comedic climax that even manages to steamroll a high-profile moralizing politician into submission.

One overriding asset of this production is the belief created by Ryan Drummond and John Treacy Egan that their Georges and Albin are true soulmates – who also just happen to be good singers. Drummond has a confident affability as Georges, who has learned how to keep the diva he lives with in a temperate zone. In both his guises as offstage Albin and onstage Zaza, Egan finds authenticity in relative understatement – although a brief appearance as straight "Uncle Al" is a marvel of burlesque transformation – but perhaps his "I Am What I Am" has room for a few more dramatic flourishes.

For the most part, the other characters in Harvey Fierstein's adaptation of a 1973 French play are stock figures providing the necessary support to roll out the jokes amid occasional heart-tugging sentiment. These roles are played as needed by Nikita Burshteyn as Georges' personable son from a one-off liaison, Samantha Rose as his sweet-as-can-be fiancee, Christopher Reber as her harrumphing politician-father, and Adrienne Herro as his dutiful wife. One exception to the paint-by-numbers performances is provided by Brian Yates Sharber's Gallic variation on Pearl Bailey as Georges and Albin's outrageous butler, who'd rather be the maid.

Director Bill English's production moves well and generally in the right directions, but with some key sight-gags missed, among them the supposed transformation of Georges and Albin's apartment from gay shrine to monastic simplicity for the sake of the potential father-in-law, which seems limited to removing one flamingo and adding two crucifixes. Jacquelyn Scott's massive rotating set must offer a variety of locations, which it does so dutifully and with an odd peepshow inset into the edge of the set every time it revolves.

Kimberly Richards' choreography for the reduced presence of Les Cagelles seems at least partly designed to camouflage uneven dancing skills, though they are an enthusiastic lot who are just one showcase for the wide variety of costumes Abra Berman has provided. The ubiquitous music director Dave Dobrusky, often toiling away alone at the piano, is the able leader of a six-piece ensemble for this production that may lack finesse around the edges, but has a steady bead on the musical's heart.


"La Cage aux Folles" will run through Sept. 16 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$125. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.


John Treacy Egan, right, decides to take over the role of the missing mother to his surrogate son (Nikita Burshteyn) when his fiancee (Samantha Rose) brings her priggish parents to meet their potential in-laws in "La Cage aux Folles" at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli