Cross-dressing 'Cage' kicks up its campy high heels
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Wayne Harada
Onstage camp, glamour, silliness and all, these are good times for Randl Ask and Laurence Paxton. The two play the lead roles in Diamond Head Theatre's revival of "La Cage aux Folles," premiering tonight.
"I'm having such fun," said Ask, who plays two roles in this gay-themed, Tony Award-winning comedy. He's Albin when in pants, female impersonator Zaza when in gowns.
And while he gets to strut as a gentleman and a drag queen, "It's much more than a drag show; it's about character," Ask said.
"For me, it's a really big show, but something different in my older age," said Paxton, a University of Hawai'i music professor who portrays Georges, Albin's life partner and co-conspirator in the operations of a gay nightclub in St. Tropez.
"If the last two things I did — 'The Secret Garden' (at Army Community Theatre) and 'A Little Night Music' (at Manoa Valley Theatre) — are an indication, this is a golden time for older male roles," Paxton said. "There's so much shading — so many dimensions — to Georges."
The production, with music by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, comes with high heels — and high anticipation. The winner of six Tonys, it's based on a French play that became a 1978 French cult comedy movie, which led to a 1983 Broadway stage musical, which resulted in an American movie — 1996's "The Birdcage," sans music, relocated to Miami and with Robin Williams as Georges and Nathan Lane camping it up as Albin/Zaza.
"I'm very used to working on heels," said Ask, a New York actor who starred in the original musical "Pageant" off-Broadway (with heels and the works) and has spent the past 10 years in the Islands. "I did the same 'La Cage' role five years ago on Maui, so it's almost second nature."
Later this year, he'll direct "Pageant" at Manoa Valley Theatre, then head back to Manhattan.
NEVER OUT OF DATE
"I think it's different this time, more subtle," said Ask of "La Cage aux Folles."
"I'm playing the role more as an entertainer going for the idea of being a character, instead of a mere drag queen. So it's more well-rounded."
And somewhat sweet, too.
"Instead of being stuck in time, the show has moved on ... more towards nostalgia," said Paxton. "I think what's really charming is how much the characters have grown in their relationship. What might have (originally) been shocking (two gays cohabiting) is extremely tame now, so there's something sweet and nostalgic. Some shows don't grow in time; some get stuck in the era, like 'Hair.' This one has kept its legs — pun intended — pretty well."
Ask said he found the essence of the souls he's inhabiting.
"I feel the heart of the characters; I find them more believable now," he said. "I've hooked into the multidimensional side; I don't think I had it in me then, when I first did the part, so it's nice to be able to bring it on stage.
The actor took costuming and preparation for the role quite seriously.
He has 10 costume changes into the creations of costumer Bill Dougherty, along with six wigs and mascara treatments. He developed his own regime in an effort to look glam and gorgeous as Zaza, and he also wanted to be fit and energetic to get through the multiple changes of clothing and persona, sometimes in just 90 seconds.
Ask lost 15 pounds in anticipation of putting on the series of gowns, he said ("credit portion control, cardio workout 15 minutes every single day for four months"). He suits up in a woman's size 14 to 16.
"And I actually have a nice bust for all of this, with a really beautiful corset — I wanted the soft bust so they move like they're real," he said.
Ask has wardrobe help from Norma Hirota, whom he calls "the best dresser in town."
"We did our first show together, 'Peter Pan,' when (director) John Rampage assigned her to me," Ask said, "and I've had her help for every show I've done since."
Tights and hose hide his hirsute areas. As he put it: "I wear three pairs of tights, four pairs of hose and a nylon body thing that's flesh-colored, to conceal my hairy legs and chest. I told them I wasn't shaving, not my legs or my chest, because I did that when I did 'Pageant' and the waxing was awful," he said.
He's enduring the confinement of the hose — so far.
STRUTTING THEIR STUFF
Paxton marvels at the breadth of assembled talent.
"I'm having the best of times because this is one of the best casts assembled, down to the smallest characters — little but important parts, as well as those wonderful dancing Cagelles," he said of the traditional long-stemmed beauts who make up the dance chorus.
The supporting players include Shari Lynn as Jacqueline, Douglas Scheer as M. Renaud, Justin Fatz as Francis, Twan Matthews as Jacob, Sean Jones as Jean-Michel and Maile Krienke as Anne.
Both genders portray Les Cagelles, the showgirls, to keep the audience guessing.
While the show is rich in comedy, behind the mascara and the mirth, "La Cage" tackles issues of tolerance and identity and embraces the power of love and the strength of commitment.
Georges and Albin, together for 20 years, are outed, so to speak, when Georges' son decides to get married.
The key hit song, "I Am What I Am," defines pride and independence; the other anthem, "The Best of Times," fuels optimism and hope. As Paxton said, "I think the song hits people with new connotations now. With the world troubles and everything else bad, the lyrics are more meaningful today than ever. I noticed how it picks up the spirits of everyone in the cast."
Paxton already has lined up his next role — the title character in "Sweeney Todd," which Army will stage in September.
He hopes to get to New York to catch the latest revival of "Sweeney Todd," which requires actors to play instruments in lieu of an orchestra. That's "pretty strange," Paxton said, "because at UH, I'm in charge of the music students — who now have to learn to act and dance, besides sing. And play an instrument, too?" (Well, at least on Broadway. The Honolulu show of "Sweeney" will have an orchestra in the pit.)
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com.