A Combination That Works Like a Charm: My Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles, Part 3

So, I started this blog (mini) series about my experiences with the 2010-2011 revival of La Cage aux Folles nearly two years ago, (so sorry for the delay in posting!) chronicling my impressions and experiences with this fabulous production of this joyous musical, and through this show I’ve met many great friends at the stage door, and have become acquainted with a talented bunch of actors/dancers [I would not presume to state that I am really friends (in the truest sense of the word) with some of the actors I’ve met at the stage door, as I would not include myself in their private, off-stage life – there’s a fine line between being a fan and being friends with them – at best, I would think I am a good acquaintance, at least I hope so.] That being said, eventually after all the times I waited at the stage door, being noticed and acknowledged by name (earning the endearing moniker “Miss Jen”), I eventually mentioned the possibility of a backstage tour – the topic first brought up sometime in September – someone (I don’t recall who) when learning of my consistent visits to the stage door after every show (always managing to secure the same spot) mentioned that such devotion should earn me a backstage tour. Luckily, Matt Anctil heard this remark and gladly offered to show me (and whoever else wanted to come along) around backstage, which was an extremely sweet gesture.

La Cage marquee_night

As fall turned into winter, and as the weather turned colder (with intermittent bursts of snow, though nothing like the consistent snowfall endured this winter 2015), my quasi-regular visits to the Longacre continued, mainly obtaining my tickets via the TKTS booth, though I did splurge (a few times) on the premium cabaret seating. It was also during this time I took up Matt’s kind gesture and arranged for a backstage tour of the set, which I had done twice, the only times I did not stage door after the show – yes, even in the cold, snowy weather, I patiently waited at the stage door. It was fascinating to see all the props, costumes and sets up close, as well as stand on the stage to see the vantage point the cast see during every performance, though it is quite awe-inspiring to be standing on a Broadway stage at all. While the cabaret seating (briefly mentioned in previous posts) was at the top premium price ($250), it was well worth it. As the setting for La Cage is at a night club in San Tropez, naturally cabaret tables were situated near the stage, with ample opportunity for the cast to interact with those few audience members at various points in the show, resulting in a very unique experience, especially during the titular song.

A view of the cabaret seats from the stage

A view of the cabaret seats from the stage

Along with the change in season, there was a significant change in cast, as it was announced that Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin De Jesus and Fred Applegate would play their final performance on February 13th (which fell on a Sunday). Naturally, I planned on attending not only their final performance, but (in a quasi mad, impulsive move) also both the Saturday matinee and evening performances – a triple play, so to speak. Anyway, it was one of the rare(ish) times I bought tickets in advance (as I usually buy tickets at TKTS) – luckily I was able to purchase a cabaret seat for their final performance roughly a month prior. More specifically, bought [without any hesitation] during intermission when I attended the show on my birthday. At this point of my “La Caging” (as my co-workers took to calling my frequent visits to the Longacre), I’d taken to seeing the show (almost) every weekend, often inviting friends to join me (if only to “explain” my acute fixation with the show and its fabulously talented cast). More times than not, we would arrive at the theatre early to meet Lili Whiteass (Todd Lattimore) and marvel at her pre-show couture, which was different (and usually weather-appropriate). It was always a joy to see Lili out there, spreading her own unique brand of hilarity to unsuspecting theatergoers.

Lili Winter 2010-2011

[Brief interlude: The Monday before his final performance weekend, Doug played a gig at the famed Birdland jazz club, performing most of his own songs, and covering others. Alongside being a fantastic actor, he also writes his own songs (two of this albums are available on iTunes), plays the guitar and piano. A few of the La Cage cast members also attended the performance and when they spotted me, inquired whether or not I’d still see the show once Doug and Kelsey left, to which I reassured that I would most certainly continue my frequent visits to the Longacre. Even on their designated night off, it was lovely to see them supporting their fellow cast member in his own independent endeavor.]

Back to (the first of) my weekend extravaganza of “La Caging” – I arrive at the Longacre early (by now I’m pretty adept at figuring out almost exactly when and from which direction most of the cast arrive) and happily greet the handful of cast members I see, letting them know I’d be attending the entire weekend of performances. Roughly about an hour and a half before show time, Doug arrives in an SUV and upon seeing me loitering waiting outside the stage door, greets me with a sweet “Hello, dahling”, (at which I internally giggled), then starts to unload boxes from the trunk – gifts for the cast. Naturally I offer to help carry some of the boxes to the stage door, to which he declined though he thanked me for offering. Later on, as theatergoers started to gather outside, another car pulls up to the stage door and Kelsey Grammer steps out of the car. Of course, there’s a buzz of excitement from those waiting in line near the stage door area – after all, Kelsey is best known for his role as the titular character in Frasier. Many of them attempt to attract his attention in the short distance from the car to the stage door entrance, of which he disregards (as he’s arrived at the theatre 30 minutes before show time, which is the latest an actor can arrive); however when he spies me loitering waiting by the stage door, he pauses to greet me (and pats my arm) then proceeds through the stage door. I barely noticed the looks of wonderment from those aforementioned people.

cast list_winter

The show was amazing, as always and I stood in my customary spot at the stage door, amid the usual throng of fans, and spotted some famous faces entering and exiting the stage door (among them, Alan Cumming, Jerry Stiller and Lin-Manuel Miranda). In the intervening hours in between the matinee and evening performance, I wandered about quasi-aimlessly then made my way to a nearby Thai restaurant, where I met three of my out-of-town friends for dinner before heading back to the Longacre to “introduce” Lili to my friends. Another fantastic performance, with thunderous applause and laughter throughout, and once more I sped to “my spot” at the stage door, with my friends in tow. As my “spot” at the stage door is on the left side closest to the door, I’m among the first bunch of people the cast see upon exiting, and it’s great to see them all, chat with them a bit and generally have loads of fun whilst signing playbills and such.

Clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Lavell & Nick Cunningham

Clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Lavell & Nick Cunningham

Onward to Sunday: as it was Doug and Kelsey’s final performance, I (quasi-impulsively) decided to buy them both a bouquet of roses (red tipped yellow for Doug, blue for Kelsey) – it was also a pricy purchase, as their final performance was the day before Valentine’s Day, but nevertheless it was a splurge worth taking. A good number of “Cagettes” (the affectionate name suggested by Matt for those few who consistently see the show and wait at the stage door) attended, some travelling from all parts of the world, to be at this performance. As customary for any actor’s final performance, their entrance garnered massive applause, cheering and standing ovations. After the overture, Kelsey is the first to come out, and not surprisingly, the house rose to their feet with applause and cheers, which moved him to tears, stopping the show for a few minutes in order for him to collect himself to continue. When it came time for Doug to enter the stage, another eruption of applause and cheers arose, though the ovations started before he actually stepped onto the stage (as his first lines are delivered off stage before entering to the usual applause). Once he did walk on to the stage, the applause was deafening, and moved him (and the audience) to tears, effectively stopping the show again. The show proceeded as it usually did, with the usual level of applause and laughter, until “With Anne on My Arm” when a teary-eyed A. J. Shively (Jean-Michel) was overcome with emotion as the song winded down, at which point the show paused for a few minutes again. There was a wealth of added emotion throughout the show, which happens during cast members’ final performance, and I find it astounding how they can (usually) keep their personal emotions in check while remaining in character.

Every song, every comedic zinger met with great applause and laughter, and the standing ovation for Doug’s final “I Am What I Am” surely shook the building. The next poignant moment during their final performance came (appropriately) during “The Best of Times”, a song that stated that “the best of times is now” – many of the cast onstage were moved to tears at the sentiment the song held. During the section when Doug serenades a part of the song to the (lucky) audience member sitting at the right side cabaret table (which always happens), one of the Twins (I don’t recall their names, but they’re frequent attendees) handed him a white rose and both embraced him (which [obviously] doesn’t always happen), which brought about a fresh batch of tears. How Doug was able to get through the rest of the song (and show, for that matter) is beyond me.

The final curtain call was another emotional experience, with the aforementioned twins tossing the remaining white roses onto the stage after the encore of “The Best of Times”, followed by Lili handing Doug and Kelsey bouquets of flowers. I was unable to obtain permission to approach the stage to hand them my roses, though I was able to relay them to Matt Anctil, who promised to hand them over to them. Though as a fairly good trade-off, I managed to take this rather candid (and utterly adorable) photo:

Doug final curtain call

A line of press photographers gathered near the front of the stage to capture Doug and Kelsey’s final speeches, wherein both expressed their gratitude and joy of having been in such a remarkable show about love, and the friendships they’ve made with the cast. The stage door experience was hectic and equally emotional, as everyone wanted to show their appreciation for the departing cast members – many of those who waited at the stage door came with gifts for them. I was teary-eyed throughout the show and afterwards; this emotional state was immediately heightened when Doug approached where I was waiting (this time I wasn’t at my usual “spot”), thanked me for the roses and gave me a bear hug when I managed to tell him that I’d miss him in the show. Much of the rest of the night was a blur, as I eventually left the Longacre both elated and saddened. Nevertheless, that performance was among the most emotional and heartfelt experiences I’ve had the privilege to attend.

The next (and final) installment will cover the arrival of replacement cast (and the brouhaha it caused), along with the second weekend extravaganza – the final three performances.

Finale roses on stage

Of Love and Fishing: Musings on The River – February 1, 2015

As it is evident throughout this blog, I tend to gravitate towards musicals, but every now and then I do see straight plays – sometimes new works, other times classic works. Of course, these tendencies are thrown out the (figurative) window if there’s an actor (or actors) I admire in a particular production. Such was the case when one of my good friends took me to see The River, a new play by Jez Butterworth, starring Hugh Jackman, currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While he’s gained worldwide fame (and a legion of fans) from his diverse movie roles, I was first became aware of Hugh Jackman through his theatre work (most of which was in his native Australia) – he played Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Sunset Blvd., a production that sadly does not have an official cast recording (though I’m sure bootlegs exist out there in the dark…). He is a triple threat (actor, singer, and dancer) with enough star power to bring in box office records whenever he returns to the stage.

The River marquee

Admittedly, this was one of those rare times I purposely went into a show “blind” – I knew next to nothing about the plot of the play (except the fact that Hugh Jackman was in it), so I was anxious and curious to see how the play would unfold. Also, this was my first venture into the Circle in the Square Theatre, located next to/within (I’m not quite sure how the exact building layout is) the Gershwin Theatre, as well as my first time seeing a show where the audience occupies three sides of the stage. The play is set inside a cabin near a river and centers on an unnamed Man and his attempts to convince with two different (also unnamed) women to go fishing with him on a moonless night. The actual location is not specified (to my recollection, though given the accents used by the actors, I can hazard a guess that the location is somewhere in Ireland) and time seems to be somewhat out of joint (or at least is wibbly-wobbly), as the two women (differentiated in the playbill as The Woman and The Other Woman) enter and exit the stage, interacting with The Man without acknowledging one another. Much of the dialogue between the Man and both Women is conversational and (at times) confrontational, and leads to startling revelations and hidden truths. The poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by W.B Yeats is prominent throughout the play, and (after doing some research about the poem, as I’m not an ardent fan of poetry) it’s poignantly symbolic within the context of the play.

The River cast list

The staging of the play was unique, as the layout of the theater is such that the audience surrounds the stage, which looked smaller and narrower than most other stage areas. Also, the sound and lighting design made it feel as if the audience was peering into that cabin near the river, with ambient sounds throughout, and absolute silence at the high dramatic points in the play. The latter sensation was a startlingly refreshing experience, helped by the fact that during the customary pre-show announcement, the audience was instructed to turn off their mobile devices (and not just to put them on silent) for the duration of the 85 minute play – and the audience complied. Aside from a smattering of applause for Hugh Jackman’s entrance, and some laughter at the more humorous bits of dialogue, there was absolute silence. In this non-musical role, Hugh Jackman was brilliant, playing the humor and drama of the interactions with the two women with honesty and emotion. Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as The Woman and The Other Woman, respectively, played off Jackman’s performance with great intensity, bringing out a perfect storm of raw emotion as the play unfolded.

The stage door experience was great, with a throng of people patiently waiting for the cast to emerge to sign playbills. While the crowd outside waiting was large, there weren’t as many people waiting as I thought there would be, but then again, I hazard a guess that the snow and the cold deterred some from braving the elements. I didn’t linger at the stage door for too long (or as long as I usually do), as the weather forecast told of another round of snowfall in the hours to come – I had a long commute home and didn’t want to be stranded in the City.

Hugh Jackman

The River is in its final weeks – there are only a few more performances left until it closes on February 8th, and I kinda regret not going to see this play sooner, but I’m very glad I got the chance to see it. It’s a thought-provoking tale of a man contemplating his connection with the art (craft?) of fishing and how it applies to the relationships he has/had/having with the two women he’s brought to that cabin for a night of fishing. There is a lot of ambiguity in this play, which makes an audience question what exactly is going on, and gives them a puzzle to solve – or at least that’s the impression I got. As an avid mystery reader (and aspiring mystery novelist) I was waiting for a more sinister plot twist which never emerged, though my personal headcanon will adhere to the darker path I deduced (one about which I might just write) – whether or not it’s correct is beside the point. Not knowing the actual linear progression of the play (or even if the events actually occurred) makes for a very interesting time at the theater, leaving an audience to wonder and make their own conclusions.

The River playbill