[Free Lance-Star] Riverside lets loose the Broadway classic 'La Cage aux Folles'

Remember “The Birdcage”?

The 1996 instant-classic-of-a-flick, starring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman, left audiences in tears—both laughing and reflecting on love in its many forms.

Now the musical version of this wonderful story is making its way to the ’Burg. “La Cage aux Folles” owns the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts stage through early March.

“You’ll definitely walk away from this one saying, ‘boy, wasn’t that entertaining?’” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director at Riverside. “Get ready to laugh like you’ve never laughed before and leave with such a warm feeling.”

The “La Cage” story zooms in on the flamboyantly gay couple of Georges and Albin. Georges is the owner of the La Cage aux Folles nightclub where his “wife,” Albin, is the star drag performer. Drama ensues when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, gets engaged and he and Albin must meet the ultra-conservative parents of his fiancée.

It’s a hilarious tale of acceptance that has taken many forms throughout the years. Based on a play by Jean Poiret, the Harvey Fierstein musical with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman first hit Broadway in 1983, where it took home the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was revived in 2004 and 2010, when it took home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical both times.

The Riverside production is based on the 2010 version, which comprises a tighter cast of 16. Directing the show is Riverside veteran, Patti D’Beck.

“I saw the original production in 1983. I loved the show, and I love the score,” said D’Beck, a Richmond resident. “When [A’Hearn] asked me to do it, I got so excited and got goosebumps over and over again just listening to the music. It’s also a timely show, talking about what may feel to some as a unique family situation.”

The show celebrates human uniqueness and differences in a tasteful, nonsalacious and artistic way. The set itself, designed by Ron Keller, resembles a Vegas-esque club, with dashing curtains, LED lights and a gorgeous light-up staircase. To add to the vibe, all guest tables are candlelit, and you may see an actor or two mingle with the crowd throughout.

While following the 2010 revival closely, D’Beck certainly adds some flair in a few spots.

“The choreography of the show was one of the most important things,” she said. “What Arthur Laurents did in the original show was magnificent. An example, when the audience sees Albin getting dressed and made up, this is sometimes done behind a dressing screen. Here, you see the actor without makeup, putting on his makeup and jewelry and you get to really experience that transformation. You have more understanding of what it takes to make that happen.”

Connecticut-based actor Christopher Sanders plays opposite Gabe Belyeu’s Albin as Georges. This marks Sanders’ first show at Riverside and first time in “La Cage.”

“I’ve always heard wonderful things about Riverside, and as a baritone in his early 50s, there are only so many roles for people my age and type,” he said. “I always appreciate a challenge and it has been nothing but wonderful to be here.”

Sanders has traveled the country, performing as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha” in Florida, Claude Frollo in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in Texas and as Emile de Becque in “South Pacific” in Tennessee. Amid his experiences, Riverside sticks out both from an actor’s and audience member’s perspective.

“As far as theaters, everything is state-of-the-art,” said Sanders. “And to have a live orchestra performing with you here ... It’s just so rare at theaters these days. When you are singing to a track, it doesn’t always give you the freedom to take a breath or pause. If for some reason we want to hold a note longer, [music director and conductor Garrett Jones] just gets it.”

In addition to the tunes and glamour this show brings, all involved hope its message shines through on equal grounds.

“The show is a window into other people in the world... how people love and what’s important to them,” said D’Beck. “At the end of the day, we are all similar with similar wants. We want to be loved and we want to have a connection to someone.”

Jesse Scott is a freelance writer and Fredericksburg native.