‘La Cage’ brings Darcelle to tears

The big showy musical in the Newmark reveals a lot of heart to go with its sequins and sashes – and Portland's legendary drag queen agrees

Darcelle is tearing up. La Cage gets her every time, she confesses, even though she already saw this particular show on opening night: yesterday. “It’s just so real,” she says. “It’s our lives.”

Portland’s most legendary drag queen and the proprietor of Darcelle XV made me do a double-take at intermission during the Sunday matinee of La Cage aux Folles in the Newmark Theatre.  Incognito in shorts and a muted-patterned, short-sleeved men’s button-up (and if you must know, #nomakeup), she resembled any older gentleman at the theater until I overheard her declare from the seat directly behind me, “Debbie Reynolds wore my jewelry when she was in town.” Of course I couldn’t help but turn around, introduce myself, and invite her to chat after the show. Naturally, I was curious what the mother of all drag mothers loved and hated about this production.

Norby and Thiessen: made for each other. Photo: Pixie Dust Productions

Norby and Thiessen: made for each other. Photo: Pixie Dust Productions

After the curtain call, we headed for the lobby, with Darcelle being stopped every few feet by fans. Once there, I asked, “What did you think? What did you like?” The waterworks welled up as she began to list: favorite musical number, Song on the Sand; favorite scene, George and Albert at the café; favorite aspect, “The characters!” George and Albert remind her of herself and 47-year partner Roxy Neuhardt.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are; it’s how you feel about each other,” she says, choking up. “And it’s also so true that (quoting a show lyric) we are what we are!” This undoes me, and now we’re both crying. Though this show preaches most directly to the LGBT chorus line, this mantra reminds us all to self-accept our many facets and present authentically to others, no matter what the reaction.

Phew. Okay. Enough sentimentality! Time to pull it together, like the tightest girdle, and critique La Cage from hair to heel. 

Pixie Dust Productions’ remount and major expansion of a 2013 version at Lakewood Theatre, as Darcelle puts it, “scales up” quite nicely, with more room for tall heels and hair, tango and tap-dancing. Return performances are polished to a gloss, and shine brighter with the elaborate new trimmings that director Greg Tamblyn has added.

Joe Theissen plays Albert/Zaza (to loosely quote the character) “like a concertina.” A holdover from the Lakewood production, she’s either maintained or further refined her performance; she’s fluid, nuanced, and sympathetic in many places where another actor might merely be hammy, and her command of props and timing is superb. During A Little More Mascara, for instance, Zaza sings while semi-blindly applying false eyelashes, makeup, and a wig in a large “mirror” that’s actually just an empty circle. She comically mumbles the chorus while applying lipstick, and by the time the song is done, she looks perfect. Zaza’s attempts at “masculinity” are as awkward as her feminine skills are deft, and Theissen nails this transformation, too.

Leif Norby is beginning to be typecast as a charmer, which actually seems fair enough. As George, his approach to Albert is sympathetic and indulgent, but he also lets us know it’s partly a put-on to smooth him through tough moments with a high-maintenance partner. Even when he’s internally fuming, he must play nice to cajole the more-sensitive Albert. This damsel/prince dynamic rings true in many relationships, especially between show folk, whether they’re straight or gay. In Look Over There, the number in which he advocates for Albert to his son, true tenderness cracks into his voice. I didn’t even need Darcelle to tell me these characters feel real.

Kevin Cook (aka Poison Waters) is mischievous, twinkly, and irresistible in the role of upstart maid Jacob/Claudia, though there are points when I wonder if she could effervesce a tad less to make the caricature into a character. A fabulous finale in a golden one-shoulder gown is Claudia’s saving grace.

Oregon Children’s Theatre resident young professional Jack Levis, as George’s son Michael, is charming and preternaturally preppy, and, bonus, he naturally resembles Norby. Sophie Keller as his fiancee is given little to do, but does it nicely. Neither gets much choreography, but maybe their stiff “norm-core” standing-around is intended to complement their straightness. Unfortunately, one of the pair’s would-be standout moments, Cocktail Counterpoint, was upstaged Sunday by microphone problems.

The Cagelles are engaging, talented and realistic as drag cabaret performers, and they certainly can dance: a tight tap routine enlivens the opening number, title song La Cage aux Folles culminates in ensemble splits, and general shoulder-shaking, prancing, preening gaeity is spread throughout. Extra points for pointe from the two queens who do a brief ballet routine. Choreographer Erin Shannon further participates as Ginger Snap, one of two cis-female cagelles; the other is Carol Burnett ringer Vanessa Elsner (who even fooled Darcelle for a split second). Jeremy Sloan aces his solo speaking moment as the sulky, haughty Mercedes Bends; Carlos M. Quezada as Salsa Caliente radiates his authentic connection to the Darcelle XV brand; Anthony Chan reprises his Lakewood Kimora Kimchee with spicy vigor.

Now, let’s talk wigs and frocks, which range from deranged to divine—mercifully appearing in that order. Like a good juggler’s act, this production starts with a few “oopses” to let you appreciate the difficulty of the tricks they’re performing.In the opening number, the caftans are questionable, especially twin robes with a purple diamond print overlaid with a wide pink swirl applique—a dose of Pepto Bismol to quash nausea? The pink-and-white polka dot minidresses the robes reveal don’t inspire much confidence, either, lingering shy of Lolita and dry for retro swimwear. In general, the uniform looks aren’t as strong as the individual styles. A set of silver-and-black bowl cut wigs uniformly unflatter, while the personal coifs are high-quality and convincing, especially the luxurious up-dos that Mercedes doffs and Zaza dons. However, there is one standout uniform: a sublime set of ruffly chiffon robes in pastel hues that wraps the whole troupe in fluffy meringue like a bakery window full of fresh Mother Gingers. (The white one, a standout on Zaza, is apparently also what Poison Waters wears when performing at Darcelle’s as Diana Ross.) As for individual costume details, they’re too splendid and sparkly to describe and too numerous to name, but they’ll dance through my brain and no doubt infuse my fashion choices for months to come.

Sets, like costumes, vary. George and Albert’s teal-and-pink apartment feels excessively cartoony and 2-D, while the Tuscan-looking café brings some depth and soft ambience to intimate conversations, and the night club decor—a lighted La Cage sign and variety of curtain configurations and interchangeable tinsel swags in front of a black background—is particularly dynamic and realistic.

Even if you were to strip away all the sequins, boas, and bugle beads, you’d be left with a cute love story and an excellent set of show tunes. Where some musicals stuff lyrics into their melodies at jagged angles (Lizzie, here’s looking at you) Jerry Herman fits witty, unpredictable repartee snugly within the musical phrasing.  The instrumentation, too, has transcendent touches, like the flutes in the waltzing “Look Over There” reprise. These hummable numbers will stick with you.

What will stick with me is the extraordinary luck of having connected with one of Portland’s legends. And if you can appreciate this show half as much as she does, bless your heart.

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

 

 

 

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