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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Post-Turkey Day Musings

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and survived the Black Friday insanity. As we reflect on our families, friends, ourselves and the world we live in, I want to share some thoughts as we thrust deeper into the holiday season.

The Color Purple. Baltimore Ravens fans have been donning purple in support of their team throughout the football season and especially so following the impressive victory over the San Francisco 49ers Thanksgiving night. Yet purple took on another meaning just a few days before.

Most of the 70 or so folks who attended the hearing before the Howard County Council in support of a bill that would end discrimination based on gender identity and expression in employment, housing and public accommodations were clad in purple to demonstrate unity. Twenty proponents of the bill offered solid and persuasive testimony—much of which came from transgender individuals who related personal experiences with discrimination.

When Council Chairman Calvin Ball, one of four sponsors of the bill, asked those at the hearing to rise if they supported passage of the bill, a sea of purple rose, which made a strong impression on friend and foe alike. It was gratifying to see that. The bill is a near certainty to pass on December 5th making Howard County the third jurisdiction in Maryland to offer such protections. Now “purple power” needs to be applied in 2012 to get the job done statewide.

Friendly Diamonds. While we continue to revel in the success of the Ravens, Major League Baseball and the Major League Players’ Association has given us some good news as well. They added non-discrimination protections for gay players in the new 5-year bargaining agreement. This was a result of lawyers on both sides agreeing that such protections should be in place.

“In a majority of states in our country, it is still perfectly legal to fire someone just for being gay, and 13 of the 30 Major League teams are located in those states that allow anti-gay firings,” Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work told the Washington Blade. “No player should have to fear harassment or workplace retaliation if he were to publicly come out as gay.”

This development means that a player cannot be terminated or face harassment should he come out as gay. The fear of harassment from teammates has always been a major impediment for a gay baseball (or any professional sport) athlete to come out. It is just a matter of time when we will welcome the first openly gay baseball player, and the reaction will be more positive than negative.

Equality Maryland’s Renaissance. Many people believed that following the disappointing 2011 General Assembly and the ugly finger-pointing that ensued, it was the end of the line for Equality Maryland, the state’s erstwhile leading LGBT civil rights organization. A majority of paid staff had been let go, with the Executive Director either having resigned or was fired depending on who you talk to. And the Chairman of the Board resigned leaving a gaping hole in the hierarchy.

But under the leadership and determination of Lisa Polyak, Patrick Wojahn, Mark Yost, Jr. and other remaining Board members, the organization did not wither on the vine. It paid down debt, put in place a new and expanded Board, and hired a new Executive Director, Carrie Evans, who is determined to restore the confidence of the community.

Although Equality Maryland will not be the sole force to achieve marriage equality and transgender protections in the upcoming legislative session, it will be a key player. Its viability and stability are crucial to pass these key initiatives.

Unfriendly Newt. Another kind of renaissance has taken place in the presidential race. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has risen from the ashes of an earlier flame-out and has surged in the polls to become a serious contender for the Republican nomination. (Does President Obama really have that good fortune?)

In its quest to find an anti-Romney who conservatives rightly mistrust, several wannabes had emerged during the pre-primary season. Now it’s Newt’s turn to fill that void.

While all the GOP candidates are virulently anti-gay, Gingrich actually has a record of opposing rights for LGBT Americans. According to davidmixner.com, Gingrich has been an active and vocal supporter of placing an amendment banning marriage in the United States Constitution. He has called marriage equality an aberration! He supports the lawsuit by Congressional Republicans to defend DOMA. He is even opposed to domestic partnerships in private industry.

He is absolutely against adoption by same sex couples. He is against the passage of ENDA. He has personally called homosexuality a sin and should be treated as such.

Newt Gingrich would be a dangerous president if elected, especially for LGBT people. However, his reluctance until now, to lay the gloves on Mitt (The Switch) Romney will most likely allow the former Massachusetts governor to cruise to the GOP prize.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Toby's Delivers a Joyous 'White Christmas'

Sometimes nostalgia can be a powerful escape because with troubled times like these, no one could be blamed for harking back to a simpler, genteel era. This escape can be found at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, with its completely entertaining mounting of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

The musical stage production was based on the 1954 movie of the same title that starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as well as Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. It began as a regional production in San Francisco in 2004 and moved on to several other venues in the U.S. and Canada. The show opened on Broadway in 2008 and closed in 2009. Later that year, a revival was produced and again was short-lived but it garnered two Tony Award nominations for Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

The oft-recognized music and straight-forward lyrics were composed by Irving Berlin. The book was penned by David Ives and Paul Blake. White Christmas has been both praised and criticized for its simplicity. But I like simple as long as there is talent, and this production has that.

Taking any musical to the tight stage of Toby’s and in the round no less, is a daunting challenge. But just like so many other musicals in Toby’s long and distinguished history, this production of White Christmas met that bar and then some.

A superb cast directed by David James and Larry Munsey (both played the male leads, Phil Davis and Bob Wallace, respectively) led the audience in a delightful trip down memory lane with so many references to the 1950’s you may think you were in a time machine. Younger members of the audience, including those young cast members, would probably not understand all those allusions and quips from days of yore, but the music and choreography seem timeless and upbeat. It didn’t hurt that the first number was that Christmastime standard “Happy Holiday” that had you humming from the get-go.

The show opens up, however, not in the 1950’s but 1944 where Bob and Phil, then two GI’s, were singing and dancing to cheer up the troops stuck in war-shattered Europe on Christmas Eve. It is here the title song “White Christmas” first appeared in the show.

The next scene takes place 10 years later at the Ed Sullivan Show where the fellas continued what appeared to be a successful song and dance act and reprised “Happy Holiday” and “Let Yourself Go.”

From there the guys—skirt-chasing Phil Davis and his buddy Bob Wallace—pursue Haynes sisters, another singing duo. Judy Haynes played by Julia Lancione and Phil hit it off early on despite Phil’s wandering eyes. Betty Haines (Janine Gulisano-Sunday) and Bob struggle to connect.

They travel to a Vermont lodge owned by the guys’ former Army commander who has fallen on bad luck, General Henry Waverly (Samn Huffer). The gals were on their way to perform in a Christmas show. We’ll leave it there as the familiar 1954-type theme boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back provides one of the key threads in the show’s plot.

Jane C. Boyle, as Martha the lodge’s outspoken manager, is sensational. Blustery, powerful, comedic, Boyle gives the show the right punch. Her rendition of “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” really hit the mark.

Larry Munsey as Bob was likewise fabulous. He showed off his big, strong voice and great acting chops, which he carries out with flair. When he and the superb dancing chorus performed “Blue Skies” to close out the first act, the audience nearly leapt to its feet. Munsey is a venerable performer and director at Toby’s, and his role as Edna in Hairspray, as an example, was superb. He was also the Costume Designer, and the costumes were magnificent and numerous.

Another Toby’s veteran is David James. The two-time Helen Hayes winner played Phil beautifully with fine singing and dancing performances, and he adroitly threw in his well-timed, clever lines.

Both Janine Gulisano-Sunday and Julia Lancione as the Haynes sisters shined brightly and played off the male leads with precision. Vocally, one couldn’t ask for better.

The remaining actors did a creditable job, and there was excellent chemistry among the company. The dancing chorus or Ensemble hoofed it up skillfully with lots of energy and graceful movement to the tuneful songs. Credit Choreographer Paula Lynn for designing the playbook so effectively allowing the dancers to show off their talents on a tight stage.

Veteran Set Designer David Hopkins also deserves a pat on the back for his work. The cute train car used in the scene where the guys and the sisters were traveling to Vermont stood out.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Music Director Pamela Witt as well as the accomplished three-piece orchestra for bringing to life Berlin’s magical score.

Popular standards, such as “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “I Love a Piano” and “How Deep is the Ocean” were wonderful. The Finale had the entire Company singing “White Christmas.” Then as an encore number, they all performed “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” as snowflakes drifted down from the ceiling.

This is a special show for a special time of year, and a good one for the entire family. And bring an appetite.

White Christmas runs through January 8 at Toby’s-Columbia. For more information, call (410) 995-1969 – Baltimore area or (410) 730-8311 – Columbia or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com

Photo: Kirstine Christiansen

Monday, November 21, 2011

'The Sound of Music' Hits the Right Notes at Olney

Many musicals provide a plot simply to connect the songs. In The Sound of Music the plot is as integral as the performances to the entertainment value of the show. The inevitability that Austria will fall to Nazi Germany formed the backdrop for the musical, and the improbable love between two disparate individuals was the focus.
The Sound of Music is sure to lift the spirits of theatergoers during this holiday season. The mounting of this classic at the Olney Theatre Center was a beauty to behold—both visually and through its superb score penned by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The book was written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
For Oscar Hammerstein II, The Sound of Music represented his final production as he died nine months after the show debuted on Broadway in November 1959 with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel as the leads. It closed in 1963 after 1,443 performances.
Several revivals both on Broadway and London followed and, of course, the 1965 film based on the musical starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, went on to become a spectacular box office success.
While the musical was based on true events, there were a number of changes made. As Director Mark Waldrop put it, “Biography is not drama, and Lindsay and Crouse took a number of liberties with the truth” to increase the emotional impact, humor and suspense.
The Sound of Music contains a bunch of well-known songs, such as, “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “Edelweiss” as well as the title song.
The story is about a former postulant, Maria, performed brilliantly by Jessica Lauren Ball, who has been sent to be the governess of the seven children of Captain Georg von Trapp (George Dvorsky), a widower and former Austro-Hungarian Navy Captain.
He treats his children like military underlings but Maria teaches them to sing and a whole new world opens up to the kids and Maria.
The Captain had intended to marry Baroness Elsa Shraeder (Jena Sokolowski), a wealthy socialite. But differences in the way they see the imminent Anschluss—the annexation by Nazi Germany of Austria—and a growing affection for Maria doom the union.
After being shaken by the real prospect that she and the Captain are falling in love, she runs back to the abbey and listens to the Mother Abbess (Channez McQuay). She then returns to the von Trapps’ house to determine if there is indeed love between the Captain and her. They eventually marry.
Max Detwiler (Bobby Smith), a mutual friend of the Baroness and the Captain whom the kids refer to as Uncle Max is a pushy music promoter. He convinces the Captain that the kids should perform at the upcoming Salzburg Music Festival.
Meanwhile the Captain is under intense pressure to accept a commission in the Third Reich’s Navy, who as an Austrian, is loathe doing. Leaving him no choice, the Captain decides to escape from Austria and pulls it off following the children’s performance at the festival, which took place with a huge Nazi banner behind them.
Mark Waldrop skillfully directed a superbly talented and charismatic cast. All the parts and pieces moved in perfect harmony. The music, so well integrated in the show’s dramatic plot, was performed splendidly.
As Maria, Jessica Lauren Ball, who played Sandy in Olney’s production of Grease this past summer, was a standout who would triumph in this role anywhere. Ball brightened the stage with her shiny presence and her glorious singing voice. She delightfully conveyed her empathy and love for the children.
George Dvorsky, a Broadway veteran, was excellent as Captain von Trapp. He also had great stage presence, sang effectively and portrayed his character with verve.
The sisters all sang like bells—beautiful, on pitch, and resounding. The supporting actors were strong with notable performances from Bobby Smith (Uncle Max) and an acrobatic Danny Yoerges who played Rolf, the young love interest for the eldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl (Maggie Donavan). Yoerges had previously demonstrated his strong acting skills as the lead in Olney’s Farragut North.
And the children—all of them—simply tugged at the heartstrings. They were fantastic.
Scenic Designer James Fouchard should be saluted because the scenery was simply exquisite, and the set changes (13 different scenes in Act I alone) were executed flawlessly and seamlessly. Also, kudos to Costume Coordinators Jeanne Bland and Seth Gilbert and Musical Director Christopher Youstra.
This is a must-see family show. A nine year-old boy, seated in front of me and attending his first show, was celebrating his birthday with his grandmother. What a way to introduce him to quality theatre!
The Sound of Music runs through January 22 at Olney’s Mainstage Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. For more information, call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.

Photo: Sonie Matthew

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Debating Debates

So much has been made of Rick Perry’s flub during the Republican presidential debate on November 9 that most pundits have written off his candidacy, and the public seems to as well according to latest polling data. But is it really fair to judge Perry or anyone else based on performance during a debate?

Since John F. Kennedy was determined by the media and pundits to have won the first-ever televised debate against Richard M. Nixon in 1960 (mostly on appearance rather than substance), the value of televised debates not only for presidential candidates but also for gubernatorial and Congressional candidates has been considered critical in our political culture over the past half century.

For the respective campaigns, debates can be a risky venture. It could be like walking through a political minefield in the dark. A Perry-like moment could doom a candidacy. Yet debates offer a candidate who may or may not be cash-strapped an opportunity to get his or her message out on the cheap; it could save on expensive ad buys especially in large media markets.

It also provides an opportunity to land that zinger that political campaigns dream of whereby an opponent could be flattened with one well-constructed and well-timed sound bite. But these zingers, have had mixed results and do not necessarily predict an outcome of an election.

Yes, Ronald Reagan during the 1980 New Hampshire primary boosted his campaign with his well-received “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” line in a Nashua debate which basically pushed George H.W. Bush into also-ran status.

And Mr. Reagan bounced off from a stumbling debate performance in 1984 against Walter F. Mondale when he floored the current vice-president in the next round with “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.” He won both elections decisively.

But arguably the most devastating zinger was landed by vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen against his opponent Senator Dan Quayle in 1988. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” stung like a swarm of hornets. Nonetheless, the ticket of Dukakis-Bentsen only managed to win 10 states and the District of Columbia come November.

Since then, such zingers have been few and far between. Most candidates prepare for debates like it was an oral quiz and spew out information which may or may not be factual. The attempted zinger, when perceived as rehearsed, comes off phony.

Debates have been so integrated into elections that competing campaigns most often debate each other on format, positioning, time requirements, etc. because each side wants to present themselves in the most favorable light.

The current crop of Republican candidates poised to challenge Barack Obama will be engaging in such debates ad nauseum through the primary season. Everything is relative; a mediocre performance can be considered skillful when compared to the rest of the field.

Given the emphasis on televised debates, should debating skills be essential to governing? Is it that important for a president to be a proficient debater?

In a practical sense, a president rarely needs to demonstrate debating skills once elected. Being a knock-out debater is not a key quality in being the leader of the free world. Most “debates” occur internally with staff, out of the public view, on policy matters or strategy. In these situations it would be more important for staff to debate effectively than it would be for the president. The president is a listener and a facilitator during these sessions, not a debater.

When meeting with adversaries, whether it be foreign leaders, reluctant allies or congressional opponents, the president rarely engages in debates. Instead, negotiating skills are far more useful and productive.

Like it or not, we are in an era that televised debates are the key test for candidates. True, they allow candidates to distinguish themselves from their opponent(s) on issues in a short amount of time. And it affords an opportunity to measure how a candidate commands facts under pressure. In that sense, it has value.

But governing requires other skills, such as judgment, decision-making, leadership and communication. That’s what voters should be evaluating as well as a candidate’s positions on issues, not how he or she answers a question in 30 seconds.


Who Doesn't Want to be a Gay Icon?

There are various ways to write a dissertation for a Masters in Liberal Arts at Johns Hopkins University. But Sarah Lynn Taylor chose to pen a musical, and drawing on her vocal gifts, proceeded to perform in I Want To Be A Gay Icon.

Taylor led the audience through a journey that was part autobiographical and part gay history with songs that had been associated with several gay icons over the years. Using narration and song she argues that being a gay icon takes more than being a star performer but one also needs to be an activist, which she unabashedly claims that she is.

In its second year, Iron Crow Theatre, a Baltimore company that has produced several unconventional shows and focuses on Queer/LGBT issues, produced Taylor’s I Want To Be A Gay Icon in cooperation with Johns Hopkins University.

The show was limited to three days (November 10-12) at the Baltimore Theatre Project and did not charge admission because purchasing the rights to the songs would have been prohibitive if it ran as a for-profit production. Instead, the audience was requested to donate funds to cover expenses.

Sarah Lynn Taylor is no stranger to Iron Crow having appeared in Durang’s Shorts and Hedwick and the Angry Inch. Director of Icon Joseph Ritsch is also a member of the Iron Crow company and has performed in Hedwick, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls and will appear in 2012 production of The Soldier Dreams—next on tap for Iron Crow.

Taylor, a magna cum laude graduate of Towson University, has significant local theatre, TV and radio experience. Her ease in front of an audience was quite evident as she commanded the stage, which she shared with three fine back-up singers and accessories to lighter moments during the show—the Iconettes (Ines Nassara, Amanda Rife and Katie O’Solomon).

In addition, four excellent on-stage musicians—The Gay Icon Band (Sam Palmer, Paul Huesman, Corey Zook and musical director/guitarist Nick Jewett)—effectively complimented Taylor’s vocals.

The concept of integrating music, biography and history was an ambitious undertaking. Generally there was a good flow but at times it seemed random and out of sequence. Landmarks in gay history, such as the Stonewall uprising, the AIDS epidemic, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and Harvey Milk’s passion were highlighted, with the songs representing gay icons of the era added a nostalgic connection to the events.

During the Stonewall segment, instead of singing “Cabaret”—a song from the musical that had been playing on Broadway at the time—I thought Judy Garland’s “Get Happy,” which Taylor did sing a bit later, should have performed at that point since Garland had died a few days before the Stonewall events. To her credit, Taylor noted the Stonewall patrons were already mourning over Garland’s death that may have shortened the fuse when the police raided.

The music and its icons were adored by the gay and lesbian community, but how many of them were activists for the cause? From Taylor’s perspective, most. She singled out Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge as those superstar entertainers beloved by the gay and lesbian community but also active in LGBT rights—to whom Taylor aspired.

Taylor noted that Madonna should be included among those icons but she couldn’t afford to acquire the licensing for her music, and she stated Lady Gaga, whom she greatly admires, didn’t receive her request.

Other gay icons who may not fit Taylor’s definition completely or because of a lack of time were not mentioned. Among them were Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Cyndi Lauper, and Donna Summer before she went anti-gay Christian on us. And you can add comediennes Kate Clinton, Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin to the list.

Unquestionably, Sarah Lynn Taylor’s musical performance was the show’s strength. Although her narrative about history, her upbringing, and family was passionate, earnest and very well-delivered, the audience was eagerly waiting for the next number. In an important segment Taylor became serious when she reminded the audience that HIV/AIDS was prevalent in Baltimore and urged people to get tested and engage in safe sex practices.

Taylor showcased her versatility in performing both ballads and high tempo songs with flair and emotion. “Constant Craving,” “Cabaret,” “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “I’m The Only One” were delivered especially well. Her rendition of “The Way We Were” was somewhat disappointing, and with “New York, New York,” Taylor took some liberties with the lyrics.

Overall, this was an enjoyable production and was well received by the audience. Sarah Lynn Taylor displayed outstanding vocal skills, energy and enthusiasm and a good sense of LGBT history which can never be understated.

Can Taylor be an actual gay icon? She has the potential, and at the very least, I’m sure she nailed her dissertation.

What a Difference a Year Makes!

Last November 20, Baltimore was among the many cities that participated in the 12th Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). The proceedings took place mainly at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore on Franklin and Charles Streets although there were several other related events around town.

This happened only a year ago, yet it seems like eons considering what has transpired since. In 2010, a few dozen trans-activists, supporters and city officials attended TDOR. There were a number of heartfelt speeches given, workshops on key topics, town hall-style meetings, enjoyable musical selections, and a bounty of food. It was followed by a moving candlelight vigil outside the church whereby there was a reading of the names and brief biographies of transgender persons or those perceived to be transgender who had died as a result of hate and prejudice.

Much of the discussion at TDOR centered on violence that target transgender individuals, homelessness, police harassment, discrimination, the effects of HIV/AIDS on the transgender community and other concerns. I recall the passion of Sandy Rawls, Kevin Clemons, Donna Plamondon, Jean-Michel Brevelle, Bill Palmer and others who dedicated themselves to this moving experience as well as the extraordinary concert given by Tona Brown later that evening.

TDOR 2010 was mostly a reflective, emotional experience and an opportunity to hold a conversation on important issues. There had been few victories to tout. Most notably in November 2002, Baltimore became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit practices based on gender identity or expression.

There is no statewide statute offering similar protections, and such attempts have been unsuccessful since 2007 and continued through the 2011 General Assembly in Annapolis. Nonetheless, a bill introduced during the 2011 session to protect Marylanders from discrimination in housing and employment based on gender identity advanced further than ever before.

The decision to exclude “public accommodations” in the bill was a tactical political decision, which was aimed at increasing the odds of passage. It fell short anyway, and the controversy surrounding the language of the bill, HB 235, sharply divided the transgender community and its supporters.

Upon completion of the 2011 session, the prevailing feeling was that efforts to ensure transgender rights in Maryland will have to be amped up. Following the near collapse of Equality Maryland, a new group, Gender Rights Maryland, was formed to push for new legislation in 2012.

On April 18, 2010, a seminal event—horrific to be sure—took place that probably changed the dynamics and altered the trajectory for achieving rights for transgender individuals. Chrissy Lee Polis, a 22 year-old trans-woman, was an unwitting hero in the cause. She was caught on video being pummeled for what seemed like an eternity by two young women—one a 14 year-old—in a Rosedale McDonalds.

As the shocking video went viral, emphasis was dramatically placed on the need for protections for transgender individuals and garnered the attention of elected officials. Governor Martin O’Malley promised to work with lawmakers to achieve those protections based on gender identity.

A community vigil and rally was quickly organized and took place a week later outside the McDonalds. It drew over a hundred activists from the LGBT community, allies and media. And the perpetrators of the assault were brought to justice with the adult, Teonna Monae Brown, sentenced to five years in prison.

With the wind at its back, the transgender community should finally see a much-deserved legislative victory in the form of a comprehensive bill in 2012. No one can predict the outcome, but I’m one who believes the governor will sign the measure into law, and it would withstand a possible petition to referendum.

Unlike the issue of same-sex marriage that will also take place next session, transgender rights do not bring to the debate much in the way of religious dogma. There are no organized groups, to my knowledge, that have been formed to fight the end of discrimination against a marginalized segment of society.

In Howard County, a sweeping bill has been recently introduced in the county council by four of the five council members. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what, if any, opposition forms and could be a gauge as to what to expect in Annapolis next year.

So as we approach the 13th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, there is a renewed hope that wasn’t evident last year that important progress will be forthcoming. But we will not forget those victims that paved the way for this progress.


Wednesday, November 02, 2011

La Cage: The Best of Times is Now

It’s a pity that La Cage aux Folles is playing in Baltimore for only a week. The touring production of the multiple Tony® Award-winning musical currently mounted at the Hippodrome Theatre is a winner in every aspect, be it performing, staging, costumes, scenic design, music and direction.

La Cage aux Folles made Tony® Award history by being the first show ever to win the coveted prize three times for best production. La Cage aux Folles is already legendary in theatre yore; the superb composer Jerry Herman (Mame, Hello Dolly!), Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy) who wrote the book and director Arthur Laurents collaborated in a fun-filled musical comedy based on the 1973 play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret.

La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway in 1983 and had spawned two hit revivals. Earlier two successful French films with the same title had been adapted from the play and a third one premiered in 1985. In 1996 the American film The Birdcage, based on the French movie, became a box office smash.

While the production for the tour’s version has been scaled down some and a few tweaks have taken place, the core plot is the same as the original. Georges, played by venerable performer and headliner George Hamilton, owns a glitzy, drag nightclub in Saint-Tropez, and his gay partner, Albin, played by Christopher Sieber, moonlights as a glamorous drag diva, Zaza.

Georges’ 24 year-old son Jean-Michel (Billy Harrigan Tigue) shocks both he and Albin by announcing that he is engaged to (gasp!) a woman—the daughter of the head of the conservative Tradition, Family and Morality Party whose goal is to close down the local drag clubs. Jean-Michel wants his fiancée’s parents to meet Georges as well as his birth mother. But the flamboyant Albin/Zaza must not be seen for at least that one night.

What ensues is a hilarious, outrageous romp, testing family bonds amidst the battle between conservative family values and genuine young love. One of the highlights was the frenetic “what are the boys doing on the plate?” sequence.

The campy, naughty drag performances by the nimble and fun-loving Les Cagelles ensemble and their interaction with the actual audience, especially in the first act, were top-notch.

Tony® Award-winning Director Terry Johnson, who helmed much of his work in London’s West End, was masterful in bringing the production to the high level it achieved.

George Hamilton, who had some Broadway musical background when he appeared in Chicago, is best known for his work in film and television (The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Love at First Bite, Doc Hollywood, Dynasty). While he does not possess strong vocal chops, his singing was serviceable. “Song on the Sand” was particularly performed well.

Drawing on a half-century of experience, the fit-as-a-fiddle, dashing Hamilton had the timing and instincts down pat. And while at times he appeared a little stiff in his movements and dialogue, he exuded a warm charm and played beautifully opposite Christopher Sieber. The chemistry between Hamilton’s Georges and Sieber’s Albin/Zaza is what makes the show work.

Tony® Award nominee Sieber’s performance was superb. No stranger to La Cage, he had played the role of Georges opposite Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. He also received plaudits for Spamalot, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Beauty and the Beast among others.

True, Sieber’s numbers were showier than others in the score, but he delivered big time. “A Little More Mascara” was performed very well. And he brought the house down with his scintillating rendition of the gay anthem “I Am What I Am.”

The supporting cast also contributed mightily to the show’s quality. Jeigh Madjus effectively played the over-the-top, flamboyant housemaid, Jacob. Billy Harrigan Tigue as Jean-Michel was excellent as were his duets with Hamilton (“With Anne on My Arm” and “Look Over There”).

Allison Blair McDowell played Anne, Jean-Michel’s somewhat conflicted fiancée. She did a creditable job defending her love for her fiancée while acknowledging her love for her family. Her father, the conservative morals politico M. Dindon, was played wonderfully by Bernard Burak Sheredy.

Gay Marshall was excellent portraying the mischievous restaurant owner Jacqueline where the unmasking of Albin’s true identity took place. The remainder of the cast performed admirably as well.

Tim Shortall’s scenic design made efficient use of the stage, and the sets transformed flawlessly. Matthew Wright’s costumes were colorful and imaginative. Jonathan Deans sound design was expertly executed and the performers were well mic’d.

And the musical production team of Todd Ellison, John Miller, Joey Chancey, Jason Carr and Lynne Page saw to it that Jerry Herman’s score was delivered perfectly by an outstanding orchestra and cast. As the finale pointed out, “The Best of Times” is now.

La Cage aux Folles runs through November 6 at the Hippodrome Theatre. Matinees are performed on both Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available at the Box Office or through Ticketmaster. Visit the website for more information.

Photo by Paul Kolnick