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Broadway quality comes to the Rockaways

Matthew Smilardi (l-r), Chazmond J. Peacock and John Heffernan in the Rockaway Theatre Company production of “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Photo by Merle Exit
By Merle Exit

The story of “La Cage aux Folles” has moved back and forth between the stage and screen over the years. Starting out as a 1973 play, it was turned into a hit 1978 film. It made its way back to the stage in 1983, when the team of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman transformed it into a Tony Award-winning musical. In 1996, it was remade as “The Birdcage,” a film which starred Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, and changed the story’s setting from the French Riviera to Miami’s South Beach.

Now community theaters are trying their hand at “La Cage.” It is far from an easy task as Rockaway Theatre Company found out.

For those not familiar with the story, it concerns Georges (John Heffernan) and Albin (Chazmond J. Peacock), lovers who own a nightclub that produces drag shows featuring Albin—aka Zaza—as the star and Georges as the emcee. Georges also has a son, Jean-Michael (Frank Caiati), the product of a long-ago fling with a woman. Jean-Michel grew up living with Georges and Albin, whom he thought of as “mother.” Now in his 20s, he has found a woman who he wants to marry.

But there’s a complication. Jean-Michel’s fiancée, Anne (Leigh Billon), has a father (David Risley), who is head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” which has the goal of closing the local drag clubs. He and Anne’s mother (Luisa Boyaggi) want to meet their future in-laws and Sybil, Jean-Michel’s birth mother, wants to visit. How will Albin fit in?

In this production, the audience doubles up on their role. Whenever the scenes take place at the club, the audience becomes the patrons. During these times some actors will sit at a table placed on either side of the stage front as if they were at the show. Most of the other scenes take place at Georges’ and Albin’s apartment, located above the club.

Credit for the succes of this production must first go to the production crew, larger than the 35-plus cast. beginning with Director John Gilleece and Musical Director Richard Louis-Pierre. Nicola De Pierro-Nellen took on the choreography.

The acting is also exceptional. Peacock and Matthew Smilardi, who plays Georges’ and Albin’s drag-queen maid, are standouts. Special singing kudos go to Boyaggi, Jodee Timpone (who plays Jacqueline), and Caiati. Heffernan certainly made his mark.

This was Peacock’s first experience of dressing up as a woman. “After dressing in drag, I learned that it is a lot of hard work,” Peacock said. “I have extreme admiration for drag performers who do this for a profession!”

“The Cagelles (the performers in the club) and I went to a couple of drag shows to see what it’s like to perform in that context. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the performers we saw, but I was brought onstage by one of them during some audience participation!” he said.

The excitement the actors felt was succefully communicated to the audience. If the theatre was as large as a Broadway venue, the constant thunderous applause and cheering after each number would have been heard on the mainland. In fact, I was surprised that the audience didn’t do “the wave.”

“La Cage aux Folles” will continue is run on Aug. 12 – 14 and 19 – 21.

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