PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: La Cage aux Folles: Boas Will Be Boas

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: La Cage aux Folles: Boas Will Be Boas In a flurry of fine feathers indeed, La Cage aux Folles once more took center-stage on Broadway Dec. 9, flaunting its conspicuous consumption all over the Marriott Marquis.
Jerry Herman; Jerry Zaks; Jerry Mitchell; Harvey Fierstein; Daniel Davis; Gary Beach; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Ruth Williamson; Michael Mulhern; Gavin Creel; Rachel York; Joan Collins; Celeste Holm; Patricia Neal & Tommy Tune
Jerry Herman; Jerry Zaks; Jerry Mitchell; Harvey Fierstein; Daniel Davis; Gary Beach; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; Ruth Williamson; Michael Mulhern; Gavin Creel; Rachel York; Joan Collins; Celeste Holm; Patricia Neal & Tommy Tune Photo by Aubrey Reuben

No, there was nothing jerry-built about this spangle-splattered juggernaut—unless you count its creators: Jerry Herman, who did the songs; Jerry Zaks, who directed, and Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed. All three were brought to the stage in the show's finale to take a bow—along with the show's Tony-winning book writer, Harvey Fierstein—and the smiles of that contented quartet positively upstaged the lavish sets of Scott Pask and sumptuously silly costumes of William Ivey Long. (No small feat, that.)

Daniel Davis and Gary Beach star as the old married (if male) couple at the heart of the show—an impresario and his diva at a flashy French drag-club in St. Tropez—who have to put on a conservative charade to appease the prospective in-laws of the impresario's son.

The stage is set for farce, and, if there were ever any shocks here, they are long gone with the wind. If not exactly Dragstrip Alley now, Broadway does have Dame Edna Everage next door to La Cage, and another Edna clicking her high heels uptown (Bruce Vilanch).

The big Tony winner of '84, La Cage has now reached A.E. Housman's age of maturity ("one-and-twenty") but doesn't look it. "I saw the original show, and it is just as fressssch now as it was then." So weighed in no less a sexpert than Dr. Ruth Westheimer. "I think you have to look at the show as a love story and as a relationship between people, not necessarily only the aspect of homosexuality." The doctor in the house was a friend of the court, claiming two of the head Jerrys for buddies (Mitchell and Herman). "I'm very fond of Jerry Herman because he is short. I like a few short people in my life," said the four-foot-seven doc. "The one thing I would liked to have seen in the show—if Jerry would have asked me, I would have said, 'Jerry, one line about safe sex.' I like that they all have sex. I like that they all have partners. But there is no such thing as safe sex."

It took $4 million more to bring La Cage into the 21st century. "The original cost $5 million, and this one cost $9 million," said Kenneth Greenblatt, who, like James L. Nederlander and Marty Richards, returned for seconds. "I can say this one is better." For Richards, opening night was a sentimental deja vu without his late wife, Mary Lea Johnson, who produced the show with him. "I cried through the whole thing," he said.

He, too, felt the new edition topped the first. "Those dancers!" for one thing. "They are so incredible you wanna burst out and applaud. They give it all they got, and then they come up to me and say, 'Now, Mr. Richards, how long are we supposed to do this?' Sweet."

Mitchell, always an athletic choreographer, really goes for burn this time out, particularly in a spectacular title-tune showstopper three-fourths of the way through the first act in which "Les Cagelles" (an unbroken chorus line of males-in-drag this time around) defy gravity and stamina. "It's as though the 15 years I've been doing Broadway Bares was my preparation for La Cage aux Folles," said the choreographer who recruited a fair number of Cagelles from that annual striptease BC/EFA benefit he has helmed since its inception.

Zaks, a seasoned pro at finding fun in a show, had a field day. "We just tried to make it as immediate and believable and as funny as possible," he said. In comparison, his next project should be a month in the country—and another country at that: "Right now I'm to do The Philadelphia Story at the Old Vic in London." Kevin Spacey is the C. K. Dexter Haven.

Composer Herman was in a special state of euphoria. "Tonight was the most flawless performance of the show I've ever seen," he admitted. "It was so emotional for me. I worked on this revival for three months, and it has been an extraordinary love-in."

Paul Huntley, the only person to receive a Tony for wig and hair design, is a carry-over from the original production, too, but, he hastened to add, "I didn't repeat myself. All the wigs are totally new"—including an unbridled blonde one that makes Beach look like Vera Ralston-in-heat and an gray-swayed one that makes Davis look like Marty Richards.

"People have been accusing me of channeling Marty," laughed Davis, a late blooming musical star whose mellifluous voice isn't often lifted in song (let alone "Song on the Sand," which he does beautifully). "I've done a lot of musicals, but this is my New York singing debut." (He didn't have a song in the recent Sondheim, The Frogs.) I've always been a little terrified, frankly, of singing."

And this debut was especially hard to bring off. Entering the show's homestretch, he was felled by laryngitis in the middle of "With You on My Arm" and had to be replaced by his understudy. "I was out just a week and a half ago. I had no voice of all, but, thanks to Dr. Gwen Korivan, I'm back. She's the best."

In his absence, one of the St. Tropez townfolk—John Hillner—stepped in, without a single rehearsal, in mid-show (Beach introduced him as "my new husband"), finished the evening, then did three other shows until Davis was well enough to return. Hillner (best remembered as the loopy saloonkeep, Lank Hawkins, in the original cast of Crazy for You) held up well during this understudy's nightmare. While Fierstein vamped with 20 minutes of standup and song 'n' dance, wardrobe readied him for the stage. They were just starting to cut him a belt when he came knocking. "They cut me one, and I was on. I was on like a heartbeat," Hillner said. "I think I had it pretty much together by Sunday."

Bryan Batt, who went on for Alan Campbell in Sunset Boulevard and Douglas Sills in The Scarlet Pimpernel, is the able Albin standing by for Beach—and should come in quite handy in February when Beach begins filming his Tony-winning role of Roger De Bris, the gay helmsman and Hitler in The Producers, with Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Roger Bart and Will Ferrell. (Incidentally, the new movie Ulla—Nicole Kidman—just bowed out of the project because she couldn't sandwich the singing-and-dancing rehearsals in between the now shooting Bewitched and the next-up Eucalyptus. Her replacement hasn't been named, but the Tony-winning original wouldn't be a bad idea.)

Beach plans to do both roles simultaneously, bicycling back and forth from Broadway to Brooklyn (where director-choreographer Susan Stroman will shoot most of the film). At least, the crossdressing is a constant. "I'll be very thin by the time that is over," he predicted, but he likes the idea of having Batt on call whenever he can't coordinate both.

And the feeling is entirely mutual. "I couldn't ask to stand by for a nicer man than Gary," said Batt. "He's the quintessential gentleman of the theatre. They don't make 'em like him anymore. I aspire to be like him." (Eve Harrington must be spinning in her grave.)

"If you play this role and you love to sing and act—how could you not have a good time?" reasoned Beach. "And, of course, as a gay man who has been in a relationship for 15 years I totally identify with it. It's a role I always knew I'd play some day. I saw the show the night before it opened originally. My friends said, 'Too bad, Gary, you're too young for it.' They can't say that anymore. I just knew I'd play that role, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to play it in a first-class production, with all these great people. I thought I'd do it in stock someplace. I'm not kidding when I say it's a dream come true".

La Cage aux Folles has been Zaks-cast for character, with a lovely assortment of character comics filling in the fringe characters. The precise, pencil-thin Ruth Williamson and the beefy, blustery Michael Mulhern drew welcoming applause of recognition on opening night. In Williamson's case, it was welcoming-back applause.

"I've had four years of film and television in L.A.," she said. "I have a recurring role on the series Nip/Tuck and gotten a lot of attention for that. And I did a lot of theatre out there. In fact, I did Vera in Mame out there. That's how I hooked up with Jerry Herman."

Her secret project these days is a one-woman show she has written on the life of Kay Thompson, who helped create The MGM Sound and was a brilliant singer-comedienne herself. "It's written now," Williamson said, "and I've been in touch with the estate. They've read it, and they like it so while I'm here in town I'm going to shop it around.

"It's called Pure Heaven, and it begins in Rome in 1963 when she just dropped out of sight. She had the world by the tail—she'd done Funny Face, and everybody wanted her for movies and television—yet she dropped everything and moved to Rome. My question is why. So that's where my play picks up. She tells the story of her life, from Rome."

Gavin Creel, the male ingenue of the proceedings, seems to be carving his whole Broadway career exclusively out of Marriott Marquis shows. "Whatever's coming in next—I don't care what it is—I'm in it," he shrugged, resigned to the fate. "I did Thoroughly Modern Millie here—it was my Broadway debut—and I didn't have as much fun at that opening night as I am now. I'm just relaxed and having a good time this time." Nor is Rachel York a stranger to the Marquis, having made her Broadway arrival there too (as Julie Andrews' romantic rival in Victor/Victoria.) She was one of the stars who "commuted" four flights up from the theatre to the post-party in the Grand Ballroom. "Right now," she said, "I'm looking for an apartment in New York because I'm starting in a show called Dessa Rose at Lincoln Center." She and title player La Chanze play women trekking through the pre-Civil War South in the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical that director Graciella Daniele starts previewing Feb. 17 at the Mitzi Newhouse.

Making a jubilant entrance in the Grand Ballroom as a three-man conga line were composer Joseph Thalken and actors David Pittu and Peter Bartlett, the latter two from the Mitchell-choreographed Never Gonna Dance of last season. "We just can't seem to let go of it," shrieked the zany Bartlett when the conga line finally conked out.

Thalken goes into rehearsal Monday with a new musical, co-authored with The Fantasticks' Tom Jones, called Harold and Maude. It'll world-premiere Jan. 9 at the Paper Mill Playhouse with Estelle Parsons, Eric Millegan, Donna English, Danny Burstein and Donna Lynne Champlin. He said he was not nervous— "yet!"

Pittu, who directed Thalken's previous musical Was, is bound for New Zealand, of all places, to do King Kong, of all things. It is being remade by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackman. "It's two weeks in January," Pittu said. "I play a theatre owner whom Naomi Watts asks for a job. It's the Depression, and she wants to be in my chorus line."

Like his fellow conga-linese, Bartlett is in the retread groove. "Tomorrow I'm auditioning for the movie of The Producers. I hope Miss Stroman will use me. [She did for The Frogs.] I'm up for the costume designer who's part of Roger De Bris' SWAT team of designers. I'm going as William Ivey Long. I am! The blazer, the khakis, the red tie."

The real Long was receiving endless compliments for his giddy get-ups including a costume that brings on Beach and, in a quick swish, turns into an entirely different costume. "Oh, isn't that fun? I make the dress on little models at my worktable at home. I make them in miniature, and then I figure out that if I can make them work as a doll, maybe we have a chance. Gary has gotten it down so fast now it's really amazing."

Joan Collins, with hubby in tow, was arguably the prize ornamentation of the first-night glitz—but there were a couple of Oscar winners giving out their glow, too—Celeste Holm and Patricia Neal—Celeste, one of the last standing Oklahoma! originals, looking smart in a white beaded suit, and Neal, fresh from the salute that raised enough funds for her own star on Hollywood Boulevard. (She is also, let the record show, the person who received the very first Tony Award—for Another Part of the Forest—back in 1947.)

Lynn Redgrave, arriving with her daughter Annabel Clark, is a prospective Oscar contender this year—for her small, but unifying and heartfelt, cameo at the end of Kinsey.

The opening-night crowd was star-filled with the likes of Star Jones, Tommy Tune, Richard Kind (who jumps into the Broadway Producers a week from Tuesday), Rosie O'Donnell, Regis Philbin, Margaret Colin, Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman, Margaret Whiting, costume designer Willa Kim, Rue McClanahan, Jai Rodriguez and directors Joe Mantello, Wayne Cilento, Milos Forman and Kathleen Marshall.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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