Review: A Little Mascara, A Lot of Fun

June 4, 2016 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"La Cage Aux Folles," East-West Players, Los Angeles, May 12, 2016

As musical comedies go, “La Cage Aux Folles” isn’t a great one. It can, however, be a highly enjoyable one in the right hands, as the East-West Players’ winning new production proves.

The 1983 Broadway show succeeded on the strength of George Hearn’s powerful Tony-winning star turn – as a big-hearted-but-temperamental drag performer seeking acceptance on his own terms – and on Jerry Herman’s tuneful score. Herman also contributed agreeable lyrics that alternate between intense theatricality and old-fashioned sentiment.

It didn’t hurt that the story takes place in a kitschy St. Tropez nightspot whose chorus line of glitzy drag queens could be called on to enliven the proceedings whenever Harvey Fierstein’s uninspired book began to fizzle.

Importantly, the musical unapologetically presented a defiant gay pride message. While times have changed, it still resonates today.

Memorable, masterful performances from not one but two lead performers distinguish the current East-West Players’ production. Jon Jon Briones as the beleaguered nightclub owner, Georges, and Gedde Watanabe as his excitable star and lover, Albin, are both outstanding from start to finish.

It’s a joy to watch such accomplished actors glide smoothly through the low comedy bits, silly plot complications, and crowd-pleasing songs. Watanabe’s two big musical numbers, the spirited “A Little More Mascara” and the anthem “I Am What I Am,” are particular highlights.

It’s even more gratifying to see the two stars convincingly portray the love their characters feel for each other with dignity and humanity. That elevates what otherwise might have been just light entertainment into something a bit more meaningful.

Marc Macalintal’s peppy six-piece band adds Broadway punch to the evening, though the amplified sound often feels a little heavy handed for an auditorium seating only a few hundred.

The East-West Players’ longtime artistic director Tim Dang has capably fashioned this compact production into a satisfying whole, striving to provide show biz flash and emotional honesty in equal measure.

For the most part he succeeds. And at those few moments when the production shows signs of decelerating, well, there’s always those glittery, gutsy chorines to bring things back up to speed.

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