SF Playhouse La Cage celebrates Herman show tunes

La Cage 2
Albin (John Treacy Egan) performs as Zaza at La Cage aux Folles with Les Cagelles behind him in the San Francisco Playhouse production of La Cage aux Folles. Below: Georges (Ryan Drummond), Albin (Egan), Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn) and Jacob (Brian Yates Sharber) prepare for a tense dinner with uptight potential in-laws. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Let us all take a moment to praise the national treasure that is Jerry Herman, the musical theater maestro behind three massive hits: Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles. It’s an opportune time to toast Mr. Herman: his Dolly is back on Broadway in a ravishing production starring the divine (and Tony-winning) Bette Midler, and closer to home, San Francisco Playhouse just opened a sweet and funny production of La Cage.

I feel like Herman only occasionally gets his due as a masterful Broadway composer – he writes music and lyrics – because he tends toward the feel-good, belt-your-heart-out kind of show tune that helped define Broadway as we know it. For certain tastemakers, that is sometimes just too, too showtune-y (if there can be such a thing). Herman’s a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of writer, and that’s what has made him an audience favorite for five decades. I saw Dolly on Broadway, and though Midler is dazzling example of human pyrotechnics in action, the production itself, and especially the score, produces endless delight and honest-to-goodness, palapble joy. Anyone who can make that happen for hundreds of people at a time is heroic.

La Cage, which debuted in 1983, was remarkably ahead of its time for its warm-hearted, comic take on a middle-age gay couple, their son and their St. Tropez drag club. There’s an arch-conservative villain who wants to run the gays out of the country and protect family values who should seem dated but, sadly, does not. The show was the last big hit for Herman, who is 86, and it remains delightful. The ever-reliable Harvey Fierstein, adapting a play by Jean Poiret, creates a solid structure with the book. He delivers a pleasing blend of nightclub/cabaret performance, farce and sweet family drama, which includes an especially poignant look at two older gay men in a long-term relationship before gay marriage was actually a thing.

With La Cage, Herman crafted an outright gay anthem that is still spine-tingling. When Zaza, the drag performer, stands center stage and sings “I Am What I Am,” it’s a profoundly defiant, entertaining, heart-swelling moment – a true high point in all of American musical theater. He also added several standards to his already packed songbook in the slightly melancholy love song “Song on the Sand” and the rousing “The Best of Times.”

La Cage 1

There’s true greatness in this score, but I’ve always felt like it’s really only 2/3 of a great score. Act 2 feels somewhat incomplete. Though “Best of Times” is a terrific song, it’s repetitious and doesn’t reach the peak of the Act 1 closer, “I Am What I Am.” Instead, the farcical plot kicks in and the bad guy has to get his comeuppance in the nightclub finale. That’s fun, but it doesn’t quite feel like the ending of the story, which is really about the central family: Georges, the nightclub owner and emcee; Albin, the performer who inhabits the drag persona Zaza; and Jean-Michel, the son they’ve raised who has met the girl of his dreams.

The sense of incompleteness in no way hampers enjoyment of the show, but in the SF Playhouse production directed by Bill English, the performances by the actors in that central family trio are so solid and sweet, you really feel the need to re-focus on them. Ryan Drummond is Georges, and though he plays, forgive the expression, straight man to the more expressive Albin/Zaza, his comic timing is superb, and his voice is even better. I’ve seen some Albin/Zaza performers who were so grandly flamboyant you wonder how these two men ever found enough common ground to stay together for 20 years, but John Treacy Egan manages the marvelous trick of taking the character over the top and never losing his deep connection to the husband and son he loves so dearly. Egan is a robust comic and a gorgeous singer, and he looks positively radiant in some of the Zaza outfits designed by Abra Berman.

Nikita Burshteyn has a tricky role as Jean-Michel, the son who wants his too-gay parent to disappear when his conservative potential in-laws come for a visit. You have to like Jean-Michel and forgive his outright cruelty to Albin, which is no small thing. He’s young, he’s in love, he thinks he’s guaranteeing his future by denying his past. But he’s an idiot, and Burshteyn plays him with sincerity, and (spoiler alert) he eventually comes to his senses.

It’s all good for comic set-up and an affecting song called “Look Over There,” which, strangely, is sung by Georges to Jean-Michel about Albin, who is only a few feet away yet cannot seem to hear the ballad that is singing his praises.

Part of the fun of La Cage is the nightclub setting, and set designer Jacquelyn Scott delivers an immersive club that extends a runway into the audience so we can get up close and personal with Les Cagelles, the club’s resident chorines (some men in drag, some women in the same kind of drag). There’s some sort-of dancing, but it’s more of the comic variety like you might see in a “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number from Gypsy, and the personae of the ladies – Hanna the whip woman, Phaedra the enigmatic – come through in broad, entertaining strokes. Lee Ann Payne deserves special mention as the larger-than-life restaurateur Jacqueline, who memorably joins in with Zaza on “The Best of Times” and has a grand time kicking the farcical finale into gear.

Musical Director Dave Dobrusky and a six-piece band keep the sound bright, with lots of accordion (it is France, after all), guitar and brass. At 2 1/2 hours, La Cage can feel a little long in parts, but Dobrusky and director English (with the help of the turntable set), keep things moving, which only helps the comedy.

Perhaps in coming seasons, Egan will help keep the Herman legacy alive by returning to play those other remarkable leading ladies, Dolly and Mame. Our troubled and troubling world could always use more Jerry Herman show tunes.

La Cage aux Folles continues through Sept. 16 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit sfplayhouse.org.

Disney’s Newsies seizes its musical day

Newsies 1
The Broadway touring company of Disney’s Newsies, a flop movie musical that found new life on stage, lands at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Dan DeLuca (center) is Jack Kelly, the leading newsboy with dreams of Santa Fe in Newsies. ©Disney. Photos by Deen Van Meer

Newsies that unlikely Broadway hit that started out as a flop movie musical, isn’t so much about groundbreaking theater as it is a sterling example of how efficient Disney can be at creating solid, broadly appealing entertainment.

The Broadway production closed last fall, but the tour dances on. If ever there was a show meant for the road, it’s Newsies, a high-energy, stick-it-to-the-man ode to unions of all kind (labor, romantic, brotherly). Now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, Newsies is the definition of crowd pleaser.

You can feel the machinery working here as Harvey Fierstein amps up and fills out the bare-bones movie screenplay about New York news boys who rebelled against money-grubbing Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. He dutifully provides a strong, intelligent young woman (absent from the movie), raises the dramatic stakes for the leading characters and does his best to make the boys themselves more than their identifying features (Crutchie has a crutch, Spot has a big arm mole, Specs wears…well, you get it). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman tinker with the movie songs (which are quite good) and a few more, the best of which is the lively “Watch What Happens.”

Director Jeff Calhoun adopts a strategy of speed and motion to keep Newsies leaping through its 2 1/2 hours. There’s hardly a dull moment (except maybe for Pulitzer getting a shave), and much of the show’s entertainment value comes down to the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. These aren’t really news boys, after all. They’re Broadway dancers, and boy oh boy (oh, boys!) do they get to demonstrate their talent. From the gymnastics of “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” to the tap of “King of New York,” these young men are fountains of twirling testosterone. Acrobatic, graceful and aggressive, these dancers are the show’s motor, and though the plot of the little guys against the big bazillionaire bully has its moments, it’s the sheer joy that comes through the dancing that makes Newsies memorable.

Newsies 2

Dan DeLuca makes for a charismatic leading man as Jack Kelly, the de facto unionizer of the Newsies, and what’s a downtrodden hero without a pipe dream? For Jack, that translates to dreams of life out West in Santa Fe. DeLuca has a strong voice tinged with modern pop stylings. He and Stephanie Styles have a nice chemistry, which helps tone down the schmaltz in their duet, “Something to Believe I,” one of those love songs where they actually have to stop singing so they can kiss. Twice. Styles’ best moment is “Watch What Happens,” which, in addition to being an ode to journalism (yay, newspapers!), captures youthful, if naive, enthusiasm: “Their mistake is they got old. That is not a mistake we’ll be making. No sir, we’ll stay young forever.”

Youth itself is practically a character on this stage. “Newsies” revels in the idealism and, especially, the energy of youth. That’s why the anthems – “Seize the Day,” “Once and For All” – have such power. It’s like Les Miz lite with less flag waving and more dancing on newsprint.

The only really disappointing thing about Newsies is its ending. After all those stirring anthems, the strike is resolved and their are reprises of “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” No powerful ballad or chorale to capture the moment or perhaps consider the future. Of course the finale/curtain call is overloaded with more hyperkinetic dancing, which is fun, of course, but by this time in the evening, we’re craving something more than melodrama, leaps and a relentlessly cheerful ensemble.

It’s all slick and efficient and impeccably performed – entertaining to be sure, but sometimes big, bold headlines aren’t enough.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Alan Menken and cast member (and Bay Area native) Julian DeGuzman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Newsies continues through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

A Kinky kick in the pants

Kinky Boots 1
Steven Booth (left) and Kyle Taylor Parker are Charlie and Lola in the Broadway national tour of Kinky Boots with a Tony Award-winning score by Cyndi Lauper. The show, based on the 2005 movie of the same name, is part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 28. Below: Booth’s Charlie takes a fancy to Lindsay Nicole Chambers’ Lauren. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots is the kind of musical comedy that leaves no unpleasant aftertaste. There’s no guilt in enjoying its pleasures, and though it’s not exactly an emotional feast, neither is it empty calories. This is a well-crafted, tuneful show whose only aim is to entertain and uplift. It succeeds on both counts.

A huge hit on Broadway, where it racked up six Tony Awards and is well into its second year, Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 film of the same name, one of those distinctly British underdog feel-good movies they do so well over there. Harvey Fierstein, adapted the movie, Cyndi Lauper made her Broadway composing debut with the score, and Jerry Mitchell (last seen in these parts with the Broadway-bound Legally Blondereview here) directs and choreographs in his typically efficient, ebullient manner.

The national touring production of Kinky Boots now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season is, in short, a blast. It’s tender hearted, energetic and filled with good will toward men, women and those who have yet to make up their mind.

What’s intriguing about the structure of the show is that there’s no great villain other than hard times and closed minds. Set in a Northampton, England shoe factor on the skids, the story is about a son reluctantly taking over the family business, finding a way to save it from extinction and challenging his community’s (and, it turns out, his own) basic attitudes of acceptance. Compared to Legally Blonde, a less successful screen-to-stage adaptation, this is Shakespeare or Greek tragedy.

Several elements contribute to the high level of Kinky enjoyment. The first is Fierstein’s book. This is a man who knows his way around drag queens (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray), so when it comes to dealing with his leading lady here – a fierce drag queen named Lola – he knows how not to write in stereotypes. He knows how to depict a fully rounded person who is confident in some parts of her life and not in others (daddy issues anyone?). He gives us two protagonists: Lola, whose flair for fabulous footwear is the key to survival for the shoe factory, and Charlie, a shoemaker by birth who doesn’t quite know what he wants in life or who he is. There’s also a third main character in the form of the entire shoe factory community, which grows to include Lola’s entourage of drag queen friends. By the end, that community turns out to be the most rewarding character of all.

Kinky Boots 3

If you want to know how to move a show like a sexy, well-oiled machine, Mitchell is your man. The trick is not letting the machine overwhelm the production, lending a cold, mechanical feeling take over the stage. Mitchell is a master at this, slowing the gears for moments of warmth, charm, humor and sex appeal.

And finally there’s Lauper’s score. If you only know her mega-hits from the ’80s, you’ll recognize some of that sound in the songs. She can do club and disco with real flair and not make it seem out of place on the musical stage. But there’s a lot more here to her musical palette. She can do character songs (“The History of Wrong Guys” sung by Lauren, the delightful woman Charlie should be in love with), heart-wrenching ballads (Lola’s “Not My Father’s Son”), great pop tunes (“What a Woman Wants”) and driving, stirring anthems (“Raise You Up/Just Be”). This is not some pop pretender cashing in on Broadway. Lauper is a real tunesmith who cares about character and narrative. It will be exciting to see what project she takes on next.

This zippy package is driven by an amiable cast headed by Steven Booth as likable everyman Charlie and the powerhouse Kyle Taylor Parker as Lola. Booth is intriguing because he might be dismissed as a nice nebbish (think Dave Foley from Kids in the Hall), but he’s got a little edge to him, and when he sings (as in his big solo, “Soul of a Man”) he commands attention and defies expectations (a theme of the show). Parker starts fabulous and stays that way. In full drag, he looks like an ultra-glam Dionne Warwick, and he wears the costumes (by Gregg Barnes) with real panache. He delivers on every level and even gets his Act 2 Shirley Bassey moment with the power ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart.”

The emotional stakes in Act 2 get a little overwhelmed by the slick staging (a boxing match between Lola and a factory thug packs a punch), and the actors could dial it up a notch, but Kinky Boots remains a well-heeled musical that’s good for the sole, er, soul.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Kinky Boots co-creators Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Kinky Boots continues through Dec. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $75 to $300. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Gaggles of gays ruffle feathers in La Cage

Curt Denham (left) is Georges and Ray Mendonca is Albin in Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage aux Folles. Below: Denham performs with Les Cagelles. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

The irony surrounding Friday’s opening-night for La Cage aux Folles at San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay was sweet. Audience members showing up for this glitzy gay musical fairy tale were not able to park in the parking lot of the San Mateo Performing Arts Center (aka San Mateo High School) because there was a football game going on.

That’s right: it was the classic collision of quarterbacks and drag queens.

And I think the drag queens won – at least they were more entertaining.

I’m happy to tell you that this production, ably directed by Marc Jacobs and energetically choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi, is a solid La Cage. Leads Curt Denham as Georges, the master of ceremonies, and Ray Mendonca as Albin, the star drag queen known as Zaza, bring abundant talent and savoir faire, which keeps this large production rolling right along.

But what really delights me is the show itself. Jerry Herman, as I’ve said before, is a national treasure. He’s king of the old-fashioned, well-built show tune. Because his songs are catchy and hummable and, for the most part, as happy as can be, he’s not taken all that seriously as a composer. He’s old school, like Irving Berlin, and while Sondheim shows will be revered and revived for centuries, high schools and community theaters will be performing Herman shows as long as there’s a staircase for Dolly to descend.

Herman’s big three, Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage, are three of the most tuneful shows in the last half century, and it’s extraordinary that Dolly and La Cage are separated by nearly 20 years. Dolly was de rigueur in the early ’60s, in fact that old-fashioned kind of musical was having its last hurrah as Hair waited panting in the wings. By 1983, La Cage must have seemed positively prehistoric. Except that it was less a throwback and more a reminder of just how delightful a solid-gold musical comedy could be.

Also in the early ’80s, as the blight of the AIDS epidemic began its devastating reign, the notion of a splashy Broadway musical about two men – one of them a drag queen – happily married and raising a son was a novelty (and an offensive one to some). Twenty-seven years later, the world has changed enough, at least in California, the most recent battle ground for same-sex marriage, that the central gay love story has moved beyond quaint. It’s now just another marriage, and the conservative politicos who set the farcical plot in motion are completely recognizable types and not all that different from the conservatives of today. And they’re just as un-funny as they were in the early ’80s.

La Cage 1

Harvey Fierstein’s book marries classic farce and romance. The fact that his central lovebirds are two men seems less important than the quality of the romance. When Georges sings “Song on the Sand” to Albin, it’s a swoon-y moment for anyone who’s ever been so in love they’re not afraid to be corny or sentimental about it.

As sweetly sentimental as the show is, there’s a surprisingly dark element to it, and that comes in the form of son Jean-Michel’s behavior toward Albin, his step-father (or step-mother depending on the mode of dress). When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to the daughter of a right-wing nut who wants to shutter every drag club on the Riviera, the son would rather shame Albin into leaving the family home for a night than risk the shame of his father-in-law-to-be’s disapproval. Jean-Michel is outrageously mean to a man he supposedly loves, and the intensity of that bad behavior seems somewhat out of step with the frothy, spangly nature of the show. Of course that bad behavior leads to the show’s greatest moment: when Albin, deeply wounded by his step-son’s betrayal, affirms his self-worth in the spectacular anthem “I Am What I Am” – one of the great Act 1 enders of all time.

But if Albin were really able to connect with his dignity, as he seems to do in the song, would he really then allow himself to be trained in the ways of masculine behavior in the number “Masculinity”? I’m not convinced of that, but then again, I don’t need to be because the song ends up being so fun.

Any lapses in logic can be forgiven in a show that offers a life-affirming, live-in-the-moment show stopper like “The Best of Times.” Sure the song is repetitive and could have used another verse (or two), but it chokes me up every time. The first time I saw La Cage in London, some 25 years ago, I remember the effect of that number and experiencing for the first time the musical theater feel-good high – the high that made me a lifelong show tune fan.

I had that same feeling watching Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage, and it made me grateful all over again for musical theater – and especially for Jerry Herman.


Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage aux Folles continues through Oct. 6 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $20-$48. Call 650 579-5565 or visit broadwaybythebay.org.

Great American musical roundup


We have a tradition here at Theater Dogs, and that is to commemorate the Fourth of July by celebrating the greatest American art form: the musical.

It was an interesting year on Broadway for new musicals. Below are reviews of cast albums for three of them (I passed on Little Mermaid because I love the movie soundtrack from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman so much that I don’t really want to hear how Ashman’s brilliance was diluted by someone else attempting to fill his shoes; and I had previously reviewed, and hated, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Xanadu). There’s also a classic American musical revival below and a pop album by current Broadway star, Kelli O’Hara.

Passing Strange: The Stew Musical ($18.97, Ghostlight Records)

Recorded live from the Belasco Theatre, this original cast recording captures everything the Bay Area fell in love with when the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Stew’s rock score is alternately rousing and mesmerizing. Brilliantly performed by the cast, this album has the distinction of being the first Broadway cast album to be released online first (you can find it at iTunes). It won’t be released in three dimensions until July 15. Recording live was a stroke of brilliance because the audience reaction fuels the experience of the music, especially during the more humorous songs.

My one complaint is that some of the songs ramble. The repetition grows wearisome on some tracks. But that’s a minor quibble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience with a you-are-there feel that pulses with energy.

In the Heights ($21.98, Ghostlight Records)

I haven’t seen the show, but one listen to this double-album set convinced me that it would go on to win the Tony Award for best score (for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars) and for best musical. This is joyous music that incorporates rap, hip-hop, salsa, pop and more traditional Broadway sounds for a highly pleasing patchwork of songs. Miranda’s rapping is intelligent and humorous, which will go a long way toward not alienating Broadway audience members who might not care for rap while pleasing those who do.

Favorite tracks include the boffo opening number (“In the Heights”), the catchy “Piragua”, Mandy Gonzalez’s “Breathe” and the beautiful “Champagne” (by Gonzalez and Miranda). The recording quality is superb, and though there are hints of Rent here and there, In the Heights comes across on record as a true original.

A Catered Affair ($19.98, PS Classics)

A fan of composer John Bucchino’s, I was eagerly awaiting the cast album for this modest musical about a Bronx family that works itself into a frenzy over the daughter’s impending wedding (the daughter wants to elope, the mother, perhaps attempting to make up for her less-than-wonderful wedding, wants a blow-out).

The first impression from the album is that Faith Prince is amazing as Aggie, the mother. Her solos, “Our Only Daughter” and “Coney Island,” are superb, as is her duet with Leslie Kritzer as daughter Janey. Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh as Ralph, the fiancé, shine on the duet “Don’t Ever Stop Saying `I Love You,'” which is the score’s standout song. Jonathan Tunick’s delicate orchestrations are gorgeous, and Bucchino’s songs are more about heart and storytelling than about big Broadway moments.

The jarring element of the album is Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the book from previous scripts by Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal. Fierstein wrote himself a role as Aggie’s brother, Winston, and if you know the cast album of Hairspray, you know that Fierstein is more personality than vocal star. In a big splashy musical comedy, Fierstein is just fine. Here, he sticks out and causes little flinches here and there.

South Pacific: The New Broadway Cast Recording ($18.98, Sony Classical)

Gorgeous, wonderful, inspiring – there’s not much left to say about this fantastic cast recording of the Tony-winning Lincoln Center hit – the first Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 classic.

Kelli O’Hara is a vibrant, honey-voiced Nellie Forbush, and Paulo Szot, with his gorgeous bass baritone, imbues songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Is How It Feels” (cut from the original, now a duet with O’Hara) with commanding, sexy power. Matthew Morrison provides a touching “Younger Than Springtime” and a forthright “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are brilliantly realized by musical director Ted Sperling. I’ll always love the original Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza recording, but this revival disc is a welcome addition to the library.

Wonder in the World, Kelli O’Hara ($16.98, Ghostlight Records)

Speaking of Kelli O’Hara, in addition to starring in a hit show, she has a new solo CD arranged and orchestrated by her Pajama Game co-star Harry Connick Jr. (and produced by longtime Connick collaborator Tracey Freeman). There are a couple show tunes – “Fable” from Light in the Piazza, which O’Hara was in, but she didn’t sing this song, “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi – but this is mostly a sweet pop album. There are three Connick tunes, including the duet title song, which is fantastic, and some James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”), Don McLean (“And I Love You So”) and Billy Joel (“And So It Goes”). There are also some O’Hara originals: “Here Now” and “I Love You the World.” There’s even a song from O’Hara’s husband, Greg Naughton (“The Sun Went Out”). It’s all pretty great because O’Hara is such a solid singer – effortless and compassionate. She may not be belting about being in love with a wonderful guy here, but she impresses with her skill, charm and warmth.

And can we just give a shout out to Ghostlight Records and PS Classics? If it weren’t for them, we’d be well short of the show tunes we love. Please keep up the good work. Please.