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Step Into La Cage

CVTG opens season with gender-bending musical

Tom Giffey, photos by Sam Boos

dude looks like a lady. Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s production of the musical La Cage aux Folles stars David Zwiers (in purple frock) and Randy Feit (in suit).
dude looks like a lady. Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s production of the musical La Cage aux Folles stars David Zwiers (in purple frock) and Randy Feit (in suit).

The Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild is launching its 34th season with a musical you may not be familiar with – but should be. The guild’s presentation of La Cage aux Folles at the Grand Theatre is the first production of the Broadway musical ever staged in the Chippewa Valley. That’s a bit of a surprise: The show (and its revivals) won six Tonys on Broadway, the music is by Jerry Herman (famous for Hello, Dolly! and Mame), the book is by actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, and it offers a blend of farce and drama that theatrical audiences typically love. On the other hand, the absence of La Cage from the local stage isn’t too surprising: For one, finding actors who can perform well in drag is a challenge; furthermore, the musical’s themes of same-sex relationships and cross-dressing may have caused conservative Midwestern audiences to blanche in the past.

“The theme of the show is more about family than it is about the homosexual relationships.” – director Keith Lorasch on the universality of La Cage aux Folles

Whether or not society has changed much since the show’s 1983 Broadway debut is an open question. In the opinion of director Keith Lorasch, contemporary debates about the rights of same-sex couples keep the musical’s themes relevant. “Not to name any political party or political faction, (but) those issues are still around today,” he says. “But the theme of the show is more about family than it is about the homosexual relationships.” In fact, he says, over-the-top drag costumes are about the only things outrageous about the play: The language is clean and there aren’t any salacious scenes.

The central characters, nightclub owner Georges (portrayed by Randy Feit) and his partner, star drag performer Albin (David Zwiers), are like any other couple that has been together for 20 years, and the show begins with them bickering. “Right from the get go,” Lorasch says, “people are able to relate to that because everybody knows those couples” – whether gay or straight.

David Zwiers
David Zwiers

The plot is set in motion when the couple’s 24-year-old son (the product of Georges’ youthful dalliance with a woman) announces he is engaged to the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician who seeks to shut down drag clubs in the name of morality. The potential in-laws are coming for dinner, which presents the gay couple with a conundrum: Do they conceal their homosexuality the sake of their son, or do they acknowledge who they are and imperil the young man’s relationship?

If the plot sounds familiar, it is: The story – which originated in a 1970s French play and film – was remade as the 1996 movie The Birdcage, starring the late Robin Williams as the nightclub owner and Nathan Lane as his drag-performing partner. Don’t expect to simply see stage version of a Hollywood flick, however: “I think it’s insulting to audiences to try to imitate a movie on stage. They came to see a stage production, not a movie,” Lorasch says. In fact, the musical offers more than the movie can: In a nod to the show’s nightclub setting, some audience members will sit at tables, and performers will interact with the crowd.

Ann Sessions, the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild’s executive director, says the show’s blend of comedy and poignancy is a good way to begin the group’s 2014-15 season, which features nine shows ranging from serious to not-so-serious. “The idea is not to have a whole depressing season; the idea is not to have a whole belly-laugh season,” she explains. On the funny side, for example, is the October production of Mel Brooks’ musical Young Frankenstein at the State Theatre; if you’re in the mood for gripping courtroom drama, see A Few Good Men at the Grand Theatre in November.   Check out cvtg.org for a full schedule as well as season ticket information.

Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild presents La Cage aux Folles • Thurs.-Sat., Sept. 11-13 and Thurs.-Sat., Sept. 18-20, 7:30pm • Sundays, Sept. 14 and 21, 1:30pm • The Grand Theatre, 102 W. Grand Ave., Eau Claire • $20 adults, $18 seniors, $10 students • (715) 832-PLAY (7529) • www.cvtg.org