The “birds” are boys and the boys are girls as Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center presents Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (aka The Birdcage), and if an uninspired scenic design gives the production a more “community theater” look than it deserves, the result is nonetheless a crowd-pleasing, gender-bending treat.

1305440_10201021269628546_1690766462_n Based on the 1973 French play of the same name, one that spawned a hit French-Italian movie, a pair of sequels, an American film adaptation, and this 1983 Broadway smash, La Cage Aux Folles centers on longtime gay couple Georges (Will Shupe) and the fabulously flamboyant Albin (Fred Helsel), the star of George’s drag show and the love of his life.

As art film and Broadway buffs will recall, La Cage Aux Folles sets its plot wheels a-turnin’ when George’s adult son (the result of his father’s one and only heterosexual one-night fling) announces to Papa his impending nuptials to the daughter of a right-wing, anti-gay politician. And as if this horrific news weren’t already enough, young Jean-Michel is insistent that his surrogate “Mom” Albin not be present when Anne and her parents come to meet their daughter’s fiancé’s family. Not surprisingly, this causes considerable ruffling of feathers, especially those worn in one of the many boas Albin sports as drag performer extraordinaire Zaza.

1379196_10201021269388540_8946372_n With one catchy Herman tune after another (including the sing-along-ready “The Best Of Times” and the gay anthem “I Am What I Am”) and a hilarious book by gay icon Fierstein, La Cage Aux Folles’ message of love and acceptance is even more relevant in 2013 than when it debuted in New York nearly thirty years ago, and if even conservative Simi Valley can embrace Georges and Albin as warmly and enthusiastically as last night’s audience did, les temps most certainly are a-changin’.

1376687_10201021270788575_491522243_n Directed with beaucoup de oomph by co-producers Helsel and David Ralphe, Simi Valley’s La Cage is at its most stellar whenever Helsel takes center stage as the one-and-only Zaza. A mountain of a man and one gigantic tornado of a woman, Helsel’s force-of-nature performance is one of the great ones, whether throwing a divalicious tantrum or attempting in vain to imitate John Wayne or raging against an ungrateful son or bringing down the house with the Act One closer (and gay anthem extraordinaire) “I Am What I Am.”

Shupe provides solid support and sings gorgeously as Georges, soloing a lovely “Song On The Sand” and a powerful “Look Over There” and duetting a delightful “With You On My Arm,” Jack to Helsel’s Madame Spratt.

972764_10201021270468567_1287885370_n Stephen Weston and Natalie Holt MacDonald make for a couldn’t-be-cuter couple as George and Albin’s (prick of a) son and his girl-next-door fiancée Anne, English charmer Weston showing off fine vocals in “With Anne On My Arm.”

George Chavez is a hilarious scene-stealer as Jacob, George and Albin’s Cagelle-wannabe butler-turned-maid (though would the couple really have allowed him to play butler in Cagelle make-up?). The trés amusant duo of Tim Holtwick and Sharon Gibson get the plum assignments of playing the sexually repressive/repressed M. and Mme. Dindon for whom La Cage holds a drag-o-licious surprise.

Supporting roles are entertainingly executed by Madison Bales as the French-accented (?) restauranteuse Jacqueline and Nick Ferguson as La Cage stage manager Francis, along with Alyssa Doyle (Collette), Kevin Ellis (Tabarro), Larry Shilkoff (M. Renaud), Marlee Candel (Mme. Renaud), and stage manager Jamie Whittington-Studer (Babette).

Last but not least are Les Cagelles—Keenon Hooks, Charles Martinez, Leah Millman, Luis Ramirez, and Rehyan Rivera—a sexy quintet of leggy, cross-dressing stunners. (Ignore the cast list till after the show and try to guess which one retains her female curves when wig and gown get removed.) Becky Castells choreographs Les Cagelles’ high-kicking dance moves, which the fivesome execute with girlish pizzazz. Tori Cusack is assistant choreographer and Swing Cagelle, i.e. she can step in for any of the drag queens should the need present itself.

Musical director Gary Poirot gets top marks for the cast’s solos and harmonies along with conducting and playing keyboards for the production’s mostly right-note-hitting live orchestra: Dr. Mark Baskin, Mel Bator, Javit Celayir-Monezis, Kevin Hart, Lucas Miller, Jodie Morse, Rob Sack, and John Setar.

1388710_10201021271068582_30486882_n Randon Pool’s multitude of costumes, from the Dindon’s conservative wear to Zaza’s fabulous plus-size gowns to Les Cagelles’ sequins and feathers are the production’s top design element, followed by Ellen Monocroussos’s flashy lighting design, which makes the most of what the Cultural Arts Center has to offer. Poirot’s wigs, especially for Les Cagelles, merit cheers as well. Technical director Lacey Stewart’s audio design worked well for the most part.

If only Seth A. Kamenow’s scenic design didn’t lend an amateur-theater air to the whole affair, but sadly that’s how his reversible arches on rollers (the set design’s main element) came across to this reviewer, particularly having seen the inventive wonders an ingenious scenic designer can work on a shoestring budget. In addition, there’s too little difference between Georges and Albin’s apartment and the nightclub stage, too little sense of how gaudy (and gay) the couple’s apartment is and how austere it becomes after all the gay stuff has been removed. Kamenaw’s designs for Pippin and Spring Awakening were winners. This one is not, and the production comes across less professional as a result.

1371309_10201021269548544_967046631_n Fortunately, even lacking this one vital ingredient, La Cage Aux Folles proves entertaining from start to finish. Add to that a round of applause for Simi Valley audiences for embracing Georges and Albin, who are even granted a brief lip lock which the original Broadway couple was denied. As for Helsel’s Zaza, she alone is reason not to miss the final week of La Cage before those Dirty Rotten Scoundrels arrive to take Les Cagelles’ place on the Riviera.

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
October 5, 2013
Photos: Seth Kamenow Photography

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