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December 1, 2017

BIG HEART: La Cage at Cortland Rep


I fell in love with La Cage aux Folles when I first saw the film in its first theatrical release. I was about Jean-Michel’s age at the time. What struck me right away was how “normal” life was for Georges and Albin. They were in show business, successful, and very much in love. This twenty-year-old just-out young man took comfort in the fact that “good things” like this would be attainable when I grew older.

Then came the musical, the film The Birdcage, and various Broadway revivals. The story always held up, and the characters seemed like family. Family is, to me, what this show is about.

Cleary I was thrilled when Cortland Repertory Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, Kerby Thompson, asked me to direct the show with my husband, Jimmy Johansmeyer, designing the costumes. We’ve both worked for Kerby at CRT many, many times, but this was a show that touched our hearts exactly the same way. Together for over twenty years, Jimmy and I are each other’s Georges and Albin. We’re both in show business, successful at what we do, and very much in love. This production would not just be about family; it would reflect our family.

The easy part of this La Cage aux Folles would be the emotion. The challenge would be mounting this great big production in the intimate confines of CRT. The theater itself is located on the second floor of a former turn-of-the-century boathouse on charming Little York Lake in central New York State. The thrust stage would bring those dangerous Cagelles leaping and kicking within inches of the audience. When one arrives at the theater, one really has arrived at La Cage aux Folles — the audience is practically “in the show.”

My artistic team — Jimmy, choreographer Matt Couvillon, musical director Joel Gelpe, lighting designer David Sexton, set designer Darin Himmerich, and sound designer Seth Asa — were up to the task of creating a new way to visually tell the story. With limited space and budget, creativity triumphed.

Scenically, we let a large, painted St. Tropez backdrop tell a lot of the story. A gilded, false proscenium arch with popcorn lights, glittering curtain and footlights would place the audience in the “club.” A large rolling panel filled with pictures, photos, memorabilia, and just enough furniture became the apartment. This paneled wall rotated to reveal a semicircular booth for Chez Jaqueline. As simple as all this sounds, it worked to perfection.

While Albin had a magnificent trousseau of fashions designed and built by Jimmy, the Cagelles had an “undergarment” that worked with every quick-change robe, dress, and beaded gown. The look of Jacob in the original film was the inspiration for the many outfits our actor donned, with much comic success (and enjoyment from the audience).

One of our favorite moments was the “bird” feature dance in the “La Cage aux Folles” number. Jimmy, Matthew, and I talked at length about this moment; what it should be and how it should look and feel. Our inspiration finally came from a vintage Moulin Rouge poster of a topless dancer with black tights, feathers, a top hat, and cane. We saw this image and said, “That!” Better yet, Jimmy built the top hats to look like bird cages. When they appeared in David’s striking pools of light, one could hear a pin drop in the audience. Success!

Our cast was as varied as could be. Seasoned professional Actor’s Equity members; working non-union actors and dancers at the top of their game; extremely talented actors from the Cortland community; and six acting interns with exuberant energy, spirit, and boundless abilities. In the loving, supportive atmosphere of our rehearsal room, they became a family.

I knew from the start we wouldn’t use the Broadway production, or any of the revivals or films, as a template. Instead, we would be inspired by all of them as we fashioned “our own special creation.” Without the benefit of a big space or a big budget, we gave this production a big heart. And in the political climate of 2017, audiences needed to see and hear this show now more than ever. We certainly left them with something more than a torn ticket stub and a program: We gave them something to think about.

To purchase a copy of La Cage aux Folles, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.