A call to action, compassion: TheatreLab Dayton presents ‘La Cage’ at Top of the Market

“There is a real need for art and conversation,” said cast member Joshua Stucky, co-founder of The Rubi Girls.

Composer Jerry Herman and librettist Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 Tony Award-winning musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” a Broadway landmark for gay themes showcased for mainstream audiences, launches TheatreLab Dayton’s 2022-23 season Sept. 8-10 at Top of the Market in downtown Dayton.

Presented in partnership with Square One Salon and The Rubi Girls, “La Cage” is based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Pioret, which is perhaps more familiar due to its 1996 film remake “The Birdcage” starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The musical centers on the 20-year relationship between Georges, owner of the titular St. Tropez nightclub, and Albin, a female impersonator and the club’s star attraction known as Zaza. Situations spin out of control when Jean-Michel, Georges’ son from a previous relationship, informs the couple of his engagement to Anne Dindon, the daughter of a bigoted politician. As families are put to the test, a celebration of identity and self-discovery occurs, validating the importance of love, forgiveness, tolerance and cherishing the present.

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

“This show really brings to the surface the intricacies of family dynamics and the need to nurture relationships in ways that are kind and true,” said Ben Douglas, who portrays Albin. “It’s interesting to take material from the ‘70s and present it now, realizing we are always learning to accept and defend those we love.”

Douglas, a regular with Black Box Improv Theater who has previously appeared with Beavercreek Community Theatre and Dayton Playhouse, also says he is embracing authenticity in his plum role. One of Herman’s signature tunes, “I Am What I Am,” is sung by Albin at the end of Act 1 and is still a gay anthem that resonates today.

“Albin is very special to me, as a gay man,” said Douglas. “I want to present him as authentically as I can because I see so much of myself in him. It’s easy to present a stereotype or a caricature, but I hope to portray him as a layered person with insecurities and flaws, and whose main motivation is to be unapologetically himself in a world that may not have its arms outstretched to him. He creates his place and it’s fabulous.”

“’La Cage’ really hits home with its clever lyrics and poignant approach to the idea of family is what we choose – not what has been chosen for us,” added Joshua Stucky, who portrays Georges and is a co-founder of The Rubi Girls. “Love wins, a truly profound statement, comes to life in this story.”

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Helming a mad extravaganza

Director Philip Drennen, TheatreLab executive director, says choosing “La Cage” was a no-brainer for the troupe due to the talents and popularity of The Rubi Girls, who have offered entertaining drag performances since the late 1980s. But he’s also enjoyed diving deeper into the script, which provides structural depth for Herman’s sunny songs, including the gorgeous “Song on the Sand,” uplifting “The Best of Times” and lively title number.

“The more I read the script, I knew I really wanted to highlight the scene work due to the strengths of this great cast,” said Drennen. “Ben and Josh are so good and so funny. Both can think on their feet. Ben performs improv all the time and Josh hosts Rubi shows in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Both are funny but they are also so sweet. They’re showing so much heart.”

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

Drennen, who staged TheatreLab’s outstanding “Cabaret” last season featuring Stucky’s luminous portrayal of Fraulein Schneider, acknowledges “La Cage” is intended to be a lavish spectacle. Still, he has conceived a more intimate approach suiting the confines of The Warehouse, the largest room at Top of the Market primarily used for weddings, charity events and trade shows.

“We’re having the audience on three sides, really close to the action,” he said. “We’ll also have lights and set pieces indicating the (various) settings such as the nightclub, apartment and restaurant. It’s been interesting to take a more intimate route with the show, which is typically seen on a proscenium stage with a lot of set changes.”

“It was a goal to put on this work in a place that allowed us to really connect with the audience,” added Mackensie King, TheatreLab artistic director. “Top of the Market was the perfect location for many reasons but it’s also another local Dayton business. We want to support local as much as possible.”

The cast includes Garrett Young as Jean-Michel, Alex Muhlenkamp as Anne Dindon, Mark Garner as Edouard Dindon, Amy Askins as Marie Dindon, Allie Haines as Jacqueline, Alex Everett as Jacob, Jamal Caan as Francis, Brooke Cierra as Colette/Ensemble, Sam Evans as Madame Renaud/Ensemble, Joshua Silver Hughes as Etienne/Ensemble, Tim Farquhar as Aimee, Jonathan McNeal as Phaedra, Jacob Sams as Chantal, Scott Winters as Hannah, Zach King as Tabarro/Ensemble, Derick Latimer as Renaud/Ensemble, and Angie Thacker as Louise/Ensemble. Norman Moxley II serves as musical director.

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Seeing things from a different angle

“La Cage” is capable of producing feel-good joy but TheatreLab is fully aware of the current political and social climate that finds the material as timely as ever. The rise in anti-gay sentiment from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and California’s “Drag Queen Story Hour” to the possibility of the Supreme Court striking down same-sex marriage has allowed the show to be a call to action and compassion.

“I believe we are at a crossroads in our country’s politics,” said Stucky. “There is a real need for art and conversation. The play has been around since 1973. Almost 50 years ago this topic was front and center. Here we are again talking about marriage equality and personal freedoms. For me, it matters. We can’t just rest thinking that once settled, always settled – that’s apathy.”

“We have so much more mainstream, queer entertainment now, but the fact of the matter is gay rights are in jeopardy,” echoed Drennen. “People are still afraid to be themselves because of where they live or because of their families, which this show highlights in a really interesting way. Jean-Michel was raised by two men and still has his own internalized homophobia about it. Even Georges, who is out and proud, decides to hide his (relationship) with Albin in order to feel accepted. This show is still relevant because we’re still dealing with these kinds of situations.”

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

Credit: MACKENSIE KING

HOW TO GO

What: “La Cage aux Folles”

Where: Top of the Market, 32 Webster St., Dayton

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $20-$75

Tickets or more info: theatrelabdayton.org

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