Beauregard/Beau (Harvey Fierstein) is a 62 year-old, New Orleans born saloon pianist living in a London flat that indicates he’s made money in his time. An honest, sensitive, gay man, he suffered tragic losses in the U.S. during the height of violence against homosexuals and burgeoning AIDs, fled to Paris, and finally nested where he is.
Our hero is comfortably stuck in the past. Having spent many years as accompanist for Mabel Mercer (whose recordings aptly punctuate the piece), taste runs to American Songbook and classical music. His well appointed, two-story living room is floor to ceiling books (with no apparent ladder access – the single omission of a terrific looking set by Derek McLane). Though the Internet is a foreign country, while curiously checking out a hook-up site (his nom de plume is Autumn Leaf), Beau has succumbed to being pursued by 28 year-old Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), who enters in his shorts.
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Assuming Rufus is a one night stand, Beau is surprised to find a thoughtful, affectionate person besotted with the past and suspiciously enamored of him. “Look at you. You’re so young! I feel like a priest!” The stranger saw Beau perform at a local club, asked around and Googled him. Questions about Mercer (answered in palpable fits and starts) and the older man’s friendship with James Baldwin elicit increasingly open stories about Beau’s personal history – at first in passing, then formally videotaped by Rufus. “You’re turning me into Grey Gardens!”
Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
The young man seems to romanticize history. “Those days that you so fancy, everyone was miserable and drunk…drowning in self contempt,” Beau protests underestimating his lover. A relationship ensues. Rufus moves in. Except for periods when his “lowercase bipolar” swings make things difficult, the couple is happy. Five years pass. Rufus proposes a Civil Ceremony. (There was no gay marriage.) “The British are the only people in the world who think partnerships can be civil!” Beau quips. Age difference (at the least) keeps him from trusting commitment.
Things necessarily shift. A tattooed performance artist named Harry (Christopher Sears) enters the picture. (Wait till you see what he later does with a Mercer classic.) With minimum fireworks, love morphs and endures in ways both warm and practical. No, it’s not a sexual triangle. You’ll end up liking all three men.
Gabriel Ebert and Christopher Sears
Playwright Martin Sherman has beautifully written the – necessarily compressed – evolution of a relationship over the course of 13 years. Detailed personal histories sound as utterly authentic as documented politics, so-called social norms, and Harvey Fierstein’s “Southern mixed with Brooklyn” accent. The smart piece will elicit laughter and a few possible tears. If anyone’s a romantic here, it’s Sherman. What a pleasure and relief it is! (A final scene feels like the epilogue. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does.)
Director Sean Mathias is immensely deft. Painful, intimate recollections and reflex sarcasm are given their due. Timing is pitch-perfect. Emotional weather changes are not telegraphed. The use of in-one curtain speeches (storytelling) works well. Fierstein’s brief moment at the piano contributes. Well chosen Mercer tunes color to best advantage. (Superb sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen)
The multifaceted Harvey Fierstein has never been better. It’s as if Beau was conceived to showcase the cynicism, wit and vulnerable heart with which we associate the actor’s past roles while painting a rich character around touchstones. This one’s no wilting lily. From the expression on his face when asked how he stays fit to wrenching, steeled description of tragedy to visceral, if fearful gratitude, he’s simply marvelous.
Gabriel Ebert makes Rufus sympathetic and touchy-feely affectionate, yet doesn’t appear cloying. The way the actor casually drapes his long body on furniture keeps sex in the air without discussion. His character’s breakdown is disturbing, but not overplayed.
Christopher Sears (Harry) offers a brazen performance within the performance and is otherwise comfortably naturalistic.
Peter Kaczorowski’s Lighting Design adds particular nuance to mood changes and focus.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gabriel Ebert and Harvey Fierstein
Gently Down the Stream by Martin Sherman
Directed by Sean Mathias
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through May 21, 2017
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, closes out its season on a sky-high note, with an exuberant La Cage aux Folles, directed and choreographed by the uber-talented Matthew Gardiner. An exceptional cast and a skilled production team more than do justice to Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics. Chances are you will exit the theater humming the musical’s anthem, “The Best of Times.” (Truly, this is the best time you will have in musical theater this summer, so get your tickets now for this limited run through July 10.)
Lee Savage’s scenic design transforms Signature’s stage into a St. Tropez nightclub. (Jason Lyons’ lighting design alternates between bright lights and muted tones, signaling when we are actually watching the show or witnessing action backstage.) To the right and left of the stage are the wings where the drag queens who make up the nightclub’s chorus line busy themselves applying makeup, donning wigs, pulling on skin-tight garments, and sliding into stilettos. The club’s owner and MC, Georges (an excellent Brent Barrett), wearing the first of many dazzling blazers, welcomes the audience and introduces Les Cagelles singing “We Are What We Are,” setting the tone for what follows. As with all the numbers, the dancing is energetic and athletic, while the colorful, flamboyant costumes are a feast for the eyes. Also note that this production called for 45 wigs to complement those costumes. (Costume design, Frank Labovitz, wig design Anne Nesmith.) The team of male dancers has mastered the art of kicking and leaping on high heels with nary a wobble or misstep. Impressive.
Bobby Smith as Albin
The star of the show is Albin, aka “Zaza,” the most famous drag queen on the riviera. Bobby Smith (is there anything this actor can’t do?) is phenomenal in the role. His Zaza persona is the perfect diva, showing a fondness for elegant gowns and expensive jewels, relying on a devoted and zany servant, Jacob (an amazing DJ Petrosino), and relishing all the attention from fans. Yet as Albin, he’s vulnerable and insecure, often needing to be coaxed onto the stage. Smith handles both sides of his character oftentimes with a grand stroke, and other times with such subtlety – the shift of an eyebrow, the flip of a hand – that he’s mesmerizing.
Brent Barrett and Bobby Smith
Georges and Albin have been a couple for 20 years and together raised a son, Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlon), the result of a one-night encounter between Georges and the long-gone Sybil. Jean-Michel arrives to tell Georges that he is engaged to Anne Lindon (Jessica Lauren Ball) whose father is head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party, a group that has been working to close down the drag clubs. Anne’s parents are arriving to meet their daughter’s future in-laws. Fearful that Edouard Dindon (Mitchell Hebert) and his wife, Marie (Sherri L. Edelen), won’t approve the marriage, Jean-Michel lies about his family situation, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Georges to invite Sybil in place of Albin. Georges finally works up the courage to share with Albin Jean-Michel’s news and wishes. Rather than the angry outburst Georges expects from his longtime partner, Albin instead remains silent, a far more devastating reaction. Going on stage, Albin asks Les Cagelles to leave and alone sings the heartfelt, “I Am What I Am.” Smith makes Albin’s grief so palatable, we feel his pain. It’s an emotional end to the first act.
Albin, however, is willing to put aside his hurt feelings to help Jean-Michel. He agrees to dress like a man and attend the dinner as Uncle Al. Smith displays his enormous talents for physical comedy with his tentative attempts to walk like a man. Truly hilarious is the moment when he uncomfortably assumes the “man spread,” his legs placed wide apart. Jean-Michel, however, is unimpressed with Georges’ plan and unleashes a barrage, criticizing Albin’s lifestyle. Georges reacts angrily, reminding Jean-Michel with “Look Over There,” that Albin has been a good “mother.”
Albin (Bobby Smith, center) at Chez Jacqueline
When Sybil sends a telegram saying she can’t attend the dinner, Albin once again hopes to help, putting on a conservative dress, shoes, and jewelry, and appearing as Jean-Michel’s mother. Not only does Albin charm the Dindons, he manages to get a table for dinner at the popular Chez Jacqueline run by his friend (Nora Y. Payton). When Jacqueline asks Albin to perform he sings “The Best of Times,” impressing Anne’s parents until he finishes the song by tearing off his wig. Anne refuses to break off the engagement, while Jean-Michel apologizes, not to the Dindons, but to Albin. Georges and Albin agree to help the Dindons escape the paparazzi by dressing them in drag and taking them through the club.
While Smith is the standout, the rest of the cast is terrific. Barrett, whose Broadway credits include playing Billy Flynn in Chicago and Frank Butler opposite Reba McEntire in Anne Get Your Gun, also is familiar to D.C. audiences. His stage presence is perfect for the self-assured Georges and his tenor delights, particularly in “Song on the Sand,” and “Look Over There.”
DJ Petrofina and Paul Scanlon
Petrosino displays his versatility and comic timing as Albin’s servant, Jacob. Is it possible he last dazzled us in a much different role? As the macho Chino in Signature’s West Side Story? We are in awe.
Nora Y. Payton
It’s a tribute to the considerable talents of Payton, Edelen, and Hebert that even with less time on stage they have a major impact. As the club’s stage manager, Francis, Michael Bunce provides several comic moments. Kudos to Les Cagelles: Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isiah W. Young, and Phil Young.
Conductor Darius Smith, who also plays keyboard, directs an orchestra that sounds larger than it is and adds considerably to the enjoyment of this musical. Members are: Kelsey Mire and Ed Waters (reeds), Chris Walker (trumpet), Scott Ninmer (trombone), Bill Hones (bass) and Paul Keeling (drums).
La Cage aux Folles was on Broadway in 1983, decades ago when gay marriage was a future hope and gay couples were fighting to become parents, stressing that family could take many forms, as long as children had adults who loved and nurtured them. La Cage brings home that message once again.
Read the interview with Wig Designer Anne Nesmith
La Cage aux Folles
4200 Campbell Avenue