Robert Kolby Harper
The fabulous high-kicking dancers of La Cage aux Folles (which translates as The Birdcage) hang up their feather boas after Sunday’s final evening performance on April 7 at Phoenix Theatre. Known as Les Cagelles, eight gender illusionists provide flirtatious, flouncing backup for their headliner, Zaza.
Rusty Ferracane plays the role of Georges, the owner of the musical’s eponymous St. Tropez nightclub and long-time partner to Albin, who performs as Zaza. “That’s usually my most challenging part in a musical — the dance,” Ferracane confides, shaking his head in appreciation of the inimitable Cagelles.
“I always say I’m not talented enough to be in the chorus, because they have to dance and sing and act, and…that’s too hard,” continues Ferracane, downplaying his stellar performances in shows like Man of La Mancha and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. He laughs. “Poor guys! I’m really grateful I’m not doing that — I make a very unattractive woman.”
“The Cagelles are difficult to cast,” declares director Michael Barnard. “Some men’s faces just don’t translate to a female face…and yet they’re very talented. But the point is, you’re trying to create an illusion that this is actually a female.”
“The real La Cage aux Folles takes the business of being a female illusionist quite seriously,” Barnard continues, “so they’re professionals to the nth degree…part of that is to truly try to fool the audience. After a while you begin to wonder, ‘Am I really staring at a man?’”
The actors playing Les Cagelles arrive at least 90 minutes before curtain, tucking away extra bits using gaffs between their legs. They don several pairs of stockings, chest and hip padding, tape, and layers of make-up — “plus they’re dancing in high heels,” adds Barnard with a chuckle.
Ferracane believes the appeal of female illusionists lies in what he calls the ‘wow’ factor — “you know, the glamour of a drag queen,” he explains. “You don’t have that with a woman turned into a man, because there’s no glamour there, there’s no entertainment value to that. You need the glitz.”
Traditionally, men impersonating women have always had greater entertainment value onstage than women posing as men. “I just think it’s fighting the stigma,” suggests Robert Kolby Harper, who plays Albin/Zaza opposite Ferracane in a role requiring plenty of mascara and chutzpah. “Men dressing up as women…it’s a wider gap from the typical idea of what a man is.”
“Lots of men get in touch with their feminine side in different ways, but capturing the illusion of it — it’s an art form. But think about it,” Harper continues. “It’s really no fun being a man. I mean, how fabulous is that?” He shrugs. “Not very. There’s no mystique.”
Barnard suggests that the innate allure of men dressed as women stems from the appeal of the forbidden. “I think men have a stronger sense of fascination when it comes to fantasy…so I think there’s something strangely titillating and yet at the same time dangerous…mysterious and unique.” He adds, “Any time men dress up as a woman it’s always good for a laugh.”
The comfortable, loving partnership of Georges and Albin in La Cage shows signs of stress when their son Jean-Michel asks his parents to disguise their relationship in order to pass muster with his future in-laws. Ferracane and Harper use the foundation of their own long-time friendship and previous acting collaborations to establish a credible on-stage rapport.
Says Barnard, “They’re good friends in real life… I think they play off each other and…know each other’s sense of humor well.” Harper laughs. “Oh, yes — we’ve played lovers like four billion times.”
Their first show together was Hello, Dolly. “We played lovers then too,” jokes Harper, “…Cornelius and Barnaby. I mean, they’re not really lovers, but we always thought that it could have happened.” He chortles wickedly. “That was our first romance,” agrees Ferracane with a chuckle.
“I feel so comfortable with Rusty,” Harper continues. “I’ve known him about 21 or 22 years, and we’ve worked together many times…so that’s the awesome part — that kind of camaraderie.” He and Ferracane strive to give their characters believable depth.
“It’s the warmth in the relationship,” says Harper. “Ultimately you have to get two people who make the audience forget that it’s two men. I think…why this show’s done so well in the past, even back when it opened, was that…the relationship kind of sneaks up on you.”
“Because it’s fine to be gay if you’re funny and campy,” Harper adds ruefully, “but if you get real, some people can react negatively to that. If they’re real and loving and caring and honest, it’s sometimes hard for audiences.” He continues, “You sneak up on them. It’s much harder for somebody to reject someone they adore.”
“I enjoy showing family values in a different light,” says Ferracane. “It’s not…typical, but they’re definitely a strong, loving, committed family that’s supportive.” He thoroughly enjoys the show’s music, too. “Jerry Herman is so great with a lyric and…a melody, and he really tugs at your heart.”
Is the show still relevant, despite the progress of equality since the play’s birth in 1973 and the creation of the musical ten years later? Harper has no doubt. “I think it’s totally an issue — otherwise gays would be allowed to marry,” he declares.
“There are many unconventional families,” Harper continues. “If you’re an adoptive parent, and you’ve given everything to a child, you know what that’s like. If you’re a stepparent, you know what it’s like to be accepted or not in that child’s life. So I think it’s bigger than just the ‘gay thing.’”
He elaborates, “I don’t know of anybody who has a normal family. What is ‘normal’? A child can be ashamed of one or both parents no matter who the parents are. And what is it like for that child to make you or your partner feel like you don’t have a place?”
“This piece holds up very well,” agrees director Barnard. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that the prejudices of this lifestyle and this world still very much exist today.”
If you go:
La Cage aux Folles continues at Phoenix Theatre through Sunday, April 7.
This weekend Phoenix Theatre offers its final performances of the all-Gershwin musical ‘S Wonderful, directed by Associate Artistic Director Robert Kolby Harper. “This kind of show is really hard,” he says, “not just for the director-choreographer but for the actors because they’ll change clothes 50,000 times, and they’ll sing 40 songs by the end of the night.”
Perhaps the number of wardrobe changes is slightly exaggerated, but ‘S Wonderful does cover more than 42 Gershwin tunes in its whirlwind tour of five time periods and locations. Mini-musicals take audiences to a 1939 Parisian café, a 1948 Hollywood movie studio, and New Orleans in 1957 – there’s a total of five vignettes of 15-20 minutes each, all sharing the same sleek but effective Art Deco-inspired set pieces.
If you’re searching for a deep, complex plot, don’t bother – the simple, timeless themes of yearning, attraction, romance, and love are carried on the thinnest of storylines. It’s all a vehicle for the rich music of the Gershwin brothers. And “if you’re looking for linear,” says Harper with a chuckle, “you’re screwed, because it’s not gonna happen.” He shakes his head and continues, “But that’s not how memories are; memories are collages, feelings…sometimes just snapshots.”
A tight, talented onstage three-piece combo of piano, bass, and drums plays nearly non-stop, providing not only accompaniment but also interludes between the mini-musicals and seamless segues between styles.
So many songs in such a relatively short show might create a dizzying, abbreviated effect, but Harper says that while “there are moments where it’s more snippety, there’s a big group of songs where you get a nice chunk.” A few of the numbers receiving more extended play include “Nice Work If You Can Get It” as well as selections from the Gershwins’ beloved folk opera.
“[The songs] that I’m most excited about are from Porgy and Bess, because I get to sing a little bit on ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,’” says actor Toby Yatso. “I’ll probably never be in a production of Porgy and Bess for racial reasons,” he continues, “so I think it’s fun to be able to experience those songs, that music, that score, even if it’s just a little taste…it’s a unique opportunity.”
Yatso is an Associate Artist at Phoenix Theatre, and serves on the faculty for Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theatre program (as does Harper). He’s won numerous ariZoni and Encore Society awards for his work onstage and as a director, teacher, and choreographer in shows like The Producers, Avenue Q, and Glorious.
“What I like about Toby is that he’s never satisfied with just bringing the same-old same-old,” explains Harper. “And he’s just awesome to work with – I laugh hysterically.” He smiles. “That’s one of my big things in rehearsal: if we’re not laughing, we’re going home, ‘cause life’s too short. We’re not curing cancer here, people – we’re doing a musical revue.”
“At the end of the day, if you’re in a revue, yeah – sing pretty, but you’ve got to be funny. It can’t all be about the voice, because I can get a CD and sit at home in my PJs and have a cocktail,” Harper continues. “So I want people who can be interesting to watch, and move you to feel something…lift the music off the page.”
The cast also includes Kaitlynn Kleinman Bluth, Jenny Hintze, Kyle Erickson Hewitt, and Jenn Taber, who stars in ‘S Wonderful’s mini-musical “Of Thee I Sing,” embracing the role of an abandoned chanteuse. “Jenn’s one of the funniest women I’ve ever met,” says Yatso. “She can sing anything and is just so committed to everything she does…and it’s fun to work with her because we’re such different-sized people. And I love that – I just love the contrast of us.”
The 6-foot-5-inch-plus Yatso continues, “I think I’m known because of my height, and as a unique physical presence.” His character in the first vignette is a newsroom worker, a sort of silent movie standard with choreography making the most of Yatso’s build. “This is so much about the physical storytelling — I get to heighten all my physical attributes…and I have a lot!” he laughs wryly.
He’s delighted with all three of his female co-stars. “Jenny and I have danced together a lot – I always feel like she makes me look like a better dancer than I probably would be by myself,” Yatso chuckles. “And Kaitlynn…we always felt we were so connected onstage.” He smiles again, and exclaims, “When I heard it was those three women, I thought, ‘I am a lucky, lucky man!’”
‘S Wonderful includes plenty of dancing along with songs ranging from the less familiar (“My Cousin in Milwaukee”) to beloved favorites. “Of course you can’t have Gershwin without ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’” says Yatso. Harper agrees; “I don’t know who can hear that song and not have a real visceral reaction to those lyrics.” He continues, “I think even now…even teenagers can listen to that and go, ‘Wow – yes, I feel that. That’d be awesome – I’d love to have someone watch over me like that.”
“And that’s the whole point,” Harper says. “That’s what music does, especially the Gershwins’ music – it connects people in ways that are meaningful, that are deeper than just dancing in the club. It boils down to love.”
Even as ‘S Wonderful leaves the stage, Phoenix Theatre prepares for the world premiere of another production: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, based on the music of Bob Merrill, who wrote hits like “Mambo Italiano,” “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” and “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” as well as works for theatre and film like Funny Girl and Carnival. Merrill, who reportedly composed on toy xylophones, took his life in 1998 at the age of 74.
“Love Makes the World Go ‘Round is set in a New York piano bar, where these three women have sort of wandered in,” explains Producing Artistic Director Michael Barnard. “They’re each in a different stage in their lives and their marriages – or ‘not-marriages’ – so they get into conversations with the help of the piano player…it’s a very funny piece.”
The tiny cast includes Jeannie Shubitz, Allison Houston, and Patti Davis, while the pianist is Brad Ellis, an arranger and accompanist for television’s “Glee,” who also worked with writer Duane Poole on the show’s arrangements.