The reason to go see La Cage Aux Folles is the partnership of Audie Gemora and Michael de Mesa, who play Albin and Georges respectively. It is why the musical will be far more enjoyable than you expect—living as we do with the stereotype of “a gay musical.”
Yes, it is a stereotype, if not an easy trap to fall into. Because we know it will be fun and funny, it will be fabulous and campy, it will be irreverent to some extent. That is true of any other production that uses “gay” and “musical” in one breath.
One is reminded that while enjoyable, that is not all that it takes to make a production fantastic.
The case of the missing ensemble
To say that that La Cage Aux Folles depends on an ensemble would be an understatement. In this musical, that ensemble is character with a name: Les Cagelles.
They are the first ones introduced for the show within the show, and in the case of this local staging, La Cagelles is made up of men and women who obviously worked hard, moved in sync, in unwieldy costumes and wigs. It was entertaining for sure, and as expected—for how can an ensemble dancing and singing in full camp regalia not be entertaining?
But there was clearly a lack of direction here, if not a lack of vision, for the ensemble. It’s what made the production less spectacular than it should have been, it’s what made certain parts of it lag. A major flaw was not making sure that it remained unclear which of the La Cagelles were male, female, gay. The group after all hinges on the illusion of sameness, putting into question the specificities of gender, because they are a group performing fabulous gayness and nothing else. It is why they remove the wigs at the end of certain performances, to reveal who is what, and tadah! the audience should be surprised.
But we aren’t.
Going through the motions
To some extent it seemed like the ensemble was merely going through the motions of being back-up performers, instead of being an ensemble with its own reason for being.
This was especially obvious in the scenes where they were the men and women of the small community Georges and Albin were a part of. Save for two actors (Rafa Siguion Reyna and James Stacey), the rest of that ensemble seemed like they were doing a performance even when they were supposed to be operating within the play’s reality. It was like everyone was gay pretending to be straight. Which is to say they were ham acting straightness.
It’s why “Masculinity” falls flat, because the ensemble was not imbued with the normalcy of machismo that it needed to have. It was like they didn’t quite know what they were doing, and it was de Mesa and Analin Bantug (as restaurant owner Jacqueline), along with Gemora’s perfect timing, that carried that performance.
The same would be true for every other instance in which heterosexuality was the reality, but the ensemble wasn’t quite told how to handle it. This disallowed for the imagination of a “real” context, relative to the fiction of performance. It kept from making that ensemble as human as Georges and Albin.
Neither did it help that the performance of homosexuality here was not consistently of 1980s France, and too often it seemed like it was pandering to the expectations of homosexual performance in the present, in the Philippines. The same might be said of Jacob (Noel Rayos), who was funny for sure, but fell out of sync too often, like he was on a different plane altogether. Again, it can only be a failure of direction, if not vision.
The only bigger disappointment was Missy Macuja Elizalde, who sincerely seemed lost on that stage every time she was on it, even when she was dancing ballet.
Oh to save a production!
If there is anything La Cage Aux Folles should be thankful for, it is Gemora and de Mesa who did their roles beyond stereotypes of homosexuality, and instead worked into Albin and Georges a humanity, one bound to crises that is the same no matter sexuality. Yes, the relationship between the two was beautifully portrayed, but one realizes that this is actually secondary to the narrative of family and parenthood that makes this text relevant, no matter its age.
Certainly there were instances when de Mesa seemed uncertain, especially with “Song On the Sand,” but one appreciates how it worked with his characterization of Georges as someone who is less about drama, and more about sincerity. It was perfect counterpoint to Gemora’s Albin, who was all about the drama, within and beyond the walls of the club.
What is magical about Gemora is how he imbues this character with a personality that makes her specifically mother, that one who knows sacrifice, as she does forgiveness.
Gemora made Albin that mother that is familiar, with some aplomb and taray thrown in. To say that Gemora was brilliant as Albin would be an understatement.
To say that de Mesa and Gemora are the heart and spirit of this production, as they are the two who keep it on its feet? One cannot overstate that enough.
La Cage Aux Folles is by Harvey Fierstein, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. It was directed for Nine Works Theatrical by Robbie Guevara.