Fans of the Robin Williams and Nathan Lane film The Birdcage already know this, but La Cage Aux Folles is among the funniest stories in 21st-century theater. From France with the 1973 play and 1978 film to the U.S. with the 1983 Broadway musical and 1996 comedic masterpiece The Birdcage, La Cage has undergone many transformations. And now, the hilarious play about a gay couple whose son asks them to tone it down for dinner with his fiancée’s hyper-conservative parents comes to Signature Theatre through July 10, offering a fresh take on the classic comedy.
Director Matthew Gardiner has always been fascinated by the Tony Award-winning musical, and is taking his own approach with Signature’s production that he hopes will encompass the best parts of each chapter in La Cage’s 40-year history. He prefers the most recent Broadway revival for turning the play’s setting in a St. Tropez nightclub – with drag shows galore – into a small, intimate setting that’s a natural fit for Signature’s space. The revival, much like The Birdcage, taps more into the heart of the story whereas the original production and film portray a more stereotypical view of gay men, according to the director.
However, he definitely plans to emulate the element of glamor in the original Broadway production à la Danny La Rue and other famous female impersonators, especially through the chorus line – “Les Cagelles.”
“I think there are ways that we’re using the Cagelles throughout the play that allow them to be seen as more three-dimensional gay men than just funny drag queens that romp around onstage,” he says.
But arguably the director’s biggest focus is to highlight the relationship between nightclub manager Georges and his partner Albin (also the nightclub’s star) and their son Jean-Michel. He notes a scene in The Birdcage when Nathan Lane (who plays the equivalent of Albin’s character) goes into his son’s room (who is in town for the impending dinner with his fiancée’s parents) and begins picking up his clothes while still in full costume from his last show. And in that moment, Gardiner says it’s clear that this is a family.
To the director, it’s the musical that enhances the familial ties that bind the three characters. He says a musical brings heart and love to a story, and “automatically makes the story more emotional and goes beyond its silliness.” The musical creates an emotional pull, allowing the audience to truly see the heart of the play.
“[ La Cage] is a story about loving your family for who they are and not trying to make them something that they’re not,” he says. “Life is lived in and people are lived in, and anytime I see characters onstage that feel like cartoons [or] clowns – I don’t want that. That’s always my goal in any musical – to make it feel as human and relatable as possible.”
Signature’s cast is entirely based in DC, with the exception of Broadway favorite Brent Barrett (who plays Georges and is perhaps best known for his role as Billy Flynn inChicago). Gardiner says this will be local actor Bobby Smith’s first time in a lead role at Signature (as Albin), which the company is very excited about. The theater is offering backstage tours led by a La Cage actor at 5 p.m. on Saturdays from June 11 to July 2 for up to 30 people at a time, allowing audiences to get up close and personal with the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production.
Audiences can also catch post-show discussion nights on June 7 and 15 to “get a more in-depth look at what went into creating the show…and a more personal perspective from the actors,” Gardiner says. But the real pièce de résistance is the pride nights on June 17 and July 1. The themed LGBT nights will include post-show receptions with DJs, drag queens and more.
“It’s going to be a big to-do,” Gardiner says.
La Cage Aux Folles runs until July 10, with tickets starting at $40. Don’t miss the show, and definitely watch The Birdcage if you haven’t already.
Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org
Photo: Courtesy of Signature Theatre