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PLAYERS BY THE SEA THEATRE REVIEW
Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea opened its 50th season on September 18, 2015 with a revival of the 1984 winner of six Tony Awards, “La Cage Aux Folles,” which will run through October 10. Reservations are highly recommended; call 904-249-0289 or visit theatrejax.org.
When this play first hit Broadway in 1983, it was considered controversial as it is about a committed gay couple facing a family crisis when their son decides to marry. As far as we know, this production is only the second in North Florida; we recall it being staged at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre some years ago. In view of how the world has changed since the 1980s, with cities and states expanding the scope of human rights ordinances and a recent Supreme Court decision supporting gay marriage, “La Cage” will no doubt become a very hot property once again.
Players by the Sea’s Resident Dramaturg Holly Gutshall has inserted an excellent detailed history of the play, from its beginning as a French play in 1973, followed by a film adaptation and sequel, both French, to its transformation into an award-winning musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. New York revivals in 2004 and 2010 won Tonys for Best Musical Revival.
The plot revolves around a middle-aged gay couple, Georges and Albin, who run a drag queen nightclub on the French Riviera and live in an apartment above it. Albin is Albin part of the time, but spends most of his time known as Zaza, the fantastic leading lady of the club. Georges, who is the manager of the club, is devoted to Albin but once, over twenty years ago, had a regrettable encounter with a showgirl and fathered a son, Jean-Michel. Georges and Albin have lovingly raised the boy together since birth, as his mother had no interest in caring for him. The couple’s carefree lifestyle is unexpectedly disrupted when Jean-Michael comes home and announces he is in love and will be getting married; Anne, his wife-to-be, is the daughter of Edouard Dindon, the most anti-gay politician in all of France. Anne and her parents will be visiting Jean-Michel to meet his family, and they will be staying overnight. The son is hoping that Albin and his over-the-top gay lifestyle will vanish before his guests arrive. This farce really goes into full gear at this point, but we will leave the hilarious details for you to discover for yourself.
The show is a fast paced musical which features some great songs and many daring dances that will leave you breathless. The show opens with the seven club dancers on stage: the fabulous Les Cagelles are played by Jonathan Leonard, Ryan Arroyo, Kimberly Cooper York, Brandon Hines, Drew Brown, Jocelyn Geronimo and Austin Belet. Their first song lets you know what this show is about with “We are What We Are”.
As the heart of the show, Georges and Albin could not have been cast any better and their chemistry is incredible. J. Daniel Altman is not a name known locally but you will be as impressed by his performance as Georges as we were. He has just moved back to his hometown of Jacksonville and brings an impressive resume filled with musicals and opera, having performed with such companies as The Atlanta Opera, Opera Memphis, and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre.Dave Alan Thomas adds another great show to his already incredible list of credits. We had seen him in “The Producers” as Roger Debris so we knew he could ace this role and he does, at one hundred percent. If we were making a list of the most versatile actors in North Florida, Thomas would certainly be at the top of the list, having appeared in roles that range from that of the flamboyant Albin to the despairing Willy Loman in Limelight’s “Death of a Salesman.” He can do it all and you will love his performance.
There are many endearing characters in La Cage. Jereme Raickett, fresh from his role as the Mayor in “Seussical, The Musical” at the Alhambra, is the captivating Jacob the butler/maid and very funny. Casting Chris Robertson as the handsome son Jean-Michel was inspired; why not have an awesome voice to sing two great love songs to his Anne, his future wife, played by Jennifer Johnston?Bill White, who appeared earlier this year in Player’s “August: Osage County,” was picture perfect as the ultra-conservative leader of France’s Tradition, Family, and Morality Party. His wife was played by this area’s favorite comic actress Brooks Anne Hayes Meierdierks, and she rocks us with laughter as Mme. Dindon.Sally Kinney, well known nightclub performer in the duo Harry and Sally, is Jacqueline, a local restaurant owner who sings interesting duets with Albin. Jeff Grove and Susan Roth play the Renauds, café owners who have a musical moment in Act Two. The final character is Kyle Geary, who recently appeared in “Aida” at Players, as Francis, the very busy stage manager of the gay nightclub.
Director/Choreographer James A. Kinney is a Jacksonville native but works all over the country, mainly creating dynamic dancing routines for musicals. He frequently performs his magic at the Alhambra Theatre. Under his tutelage, the performances are polished, professional, and impactful. Shawna Walker was Associate Director/Choreographer.
This is a musical and it has produced songs that have become standards; songs such as “I Am What I Am,” “Song on the Sand,” and “The Best of Times.” You will hear stunning musical performances in this production. The excellent band, hidden away backstage, is led by Stefanie Batson on keyboard/flute, with Dererk Swearengin (Keyboard ll), Greg Balut (Trumpet), Alexander Henandez (Woodwinds), Damon Martin (Bass), and Mike Taylor (percussionist). Matt Morgan is Vocal Director.
The Design Team members were: Joe Schwarz (sets), Jim Wiggins (lighting), Amy Tillotson (stage manager), Nichole Ignacio and Costume World (costumes), Gayle Featheringill and Jane LaRoque (costume assistants), Sadie La Manna and Angela Baker (wig design), and Katie Dawson (scenic charge artist).
We highly recommend “La Cage Aux Folles” It was a landmark musical with its sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship and is even more relevant today than when it first opened. Every member of this ensemble cast makes a bold impression and the staging is solid and sure down to the last detail. Advisory: Diehard fans, reserve immediately, as we understand tickets are going fast.