A look back at the Best of Broadway on The South Coast
Bugle Beads, Ostrich Plumes, and A Little More Mascara – How Festival Theatre’s inaugural production of La Cage aux Folles began a 30-year legacy
Rapturous cheers and applause drowned out the triumphant finale “The Best of Times.” It was an astonishing end to the opening night performance of La Cage aux Folles on July 26, 1990. A six month labor of love for its production team was a hit.
One of the most dazzling productions to ever play the Zeiterion Theatre, this production of La Cage was the inaugural presentation of New Bedford Festival Theatre, produced by its Founder, Armand Marchand.
“We Are What We Are” from NBFT’s Production of La Cage aux Folles – video courtesy of James Beaman
La Cage tells the story of St. Tropez nightclub owner Georges, his husband of 20 years, Albin, their 19-year-old son who wants to get married, and the soon-to-be father-in-law, who is the most notorious bigot in France.
Add to this, the St. Tropez nightclub stars Albin as its headliner (known as “Zaza), supported by the “Notorious Les Cagelles” (an ensemble of specialty drag performers), and we have an evening where a hilarious and heartwarming story ensues, enhanced by over the top musical numbers and more than a truckload of sequins and feathers.
The creative team for La Cage was a group of people who, over the prior 6 seasons, mounted 15 musicals for the Zeiterion under the guiding hand of Producer Robert A. Freedman, who departed The Zeiterion at the end of 1989.
Executive Producer Armand R. Marchand, Artistic Director George Charbonneau, Choreographer Clay James, Music Director Don Vasconcelles, and Lighting Designer Suzanne Lowell had less than 5 months to cast, rehearse, and light the first show produced by the new company.
When founding New Bedford Festival Theatre, Marchand, with a limited budget and as a first time producer, had the option to pick one of three musicals, South Pacific, The Pirates of Penzance, and La Cage aux Folles. The Zeiterion Theatre itself had planned to produce these shows for a canceled 1990 summer season.
Marchand said, “We chose La Cage because it was a newer show and it had only closed on Broadway just two years earlier, so it was a hot show and it was an ‘up’ show written by Jerry Herman; everybody had been very much acquainted with his Hello, Dolly! and Mame, and it’s a fun show and an upbeat show and so that was one of the reasons why we decided to go with it.”
While researching where to find scenery, costumes, and wigs for this lavish production, Marchand looked at various theatres that had done the show and confessed it was a “fruitless effort because I was never happy with what I saw and I wanted to get the best possible.” As luck would have it, he happened upon a small advertisement in Variety, the daily Show Business newspaper. “… it said, ‘You can rent the original costumes and scenery from two shows, it was Dreamgirls and La Cage.’ We were looking at La Cage”
Marchand called and spoke with then General Manager and now Tony-Award winning producer Joey Parnes. Parnes quoted the whole package of scenery, props, costumes, and wigs from the Tony Award winning designers of the Broadway production (scenery by David Mitchell, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, and wigs by Paul Huntley).
Marchand went on, “They told me how much it would cost and we had no money. So it was a really large amount of money. I told them ‘no,’ and I kept pursuing my chase to find what I wanted to have.”
A few weeks later, Marchand received a follow up phone call from Mr. Parnes.
“It was probably May 1990, and he said, ‘I want to offer you that same package and half the price. How does that sound?’ Well, technically we still didn’t have the money, but I thought, I couldn’t keep losing face in front of the guy…but I thought it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. So I said, that would be terrific and he came through with everything for us, it was fabulous.”
To this day, Marchand feels he owes Mr. Parnes a great deal for the part he played in making Festival Theatre’s inaugural production as polished and well received as it was.
Leading the cast of 22 were Paul Knipler as Albin, Larry Rita as Georges, Ty Taylor (who later joined the 1994 Broadway production of Grease) as Jacob the Maid, Leo J. Schick as the ultra-conservative father-in-law-to-be, and local powerhouse performer Dee Kullander, an area performer, who Marchand describes as a wonderful comedienne and an actress known for her comic timing.
James Beaman, was cast in the role of Mercedes, one of “Les Cagelle” in the show. Marchand recalls “he was the heart and soul of Les Cagelles, helping with audition and rehearsal choreography, assisting with correct makeup application, and being a consummate professional at every turn.”
During rehearsals for La Cage, Beaman met Damien Thibodeaux who was in the cast playing the role of Francis the Stage Manager and was instrumental in guiding the success of two of Beeman’s future triumphs that of Lauren Bacall in Bacall: By Herself and Marlene Dietrich in Black Market which Beeman played in New York, on a US Tour, and in Berlin.
Beaman went on to perform in the National Tour of Spamalot, and in 2007 at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, he graduated to the leading role of Albin in their production of La Cage.
When asked if he ever thought that producing a show where the two leading characters were gay would be a problem for audiences, Marchand said with great confidence, “That never stopped me from wanting to do it. That’s not the reason why I did …Which is strange. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it definitely is. I just thought it was the most spectacular show and [the] spectacular dancing, singing, costuming, very elaborate.”
Marchand conceded, “The only overt commentary I heard after La Cage is, this woman walked by me with her husband, but she let him get a little bit ahead of her when he was walking through the lobby. And she said, ‘I love the show. It wasn’t quite my husband’s cup of tea.’ Is what she said. And I thought, well, there is something that’s a real attack on what we’ve been doing. So I kind of chuckled because that was the most overt comment I’ve heard.”
When asked his impressions of seeing La Cage on stage as the first show he ever produced, Marchand said, “All I can tell you is when the show opened up on the opening night, it was the single greatest thrill I think I’ve ever had [not just] because of the professional scenery and costumes, but because of the cast was very professional. I felt like I was seeing it again on Broadway and it was so exciting. I remember, a reporter said to me,’Well, how do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel like this opening night is bigger than my birthday, the 4th of July and Christmas all rolled into one.’”
La Cage aux Folles ran four performances over one weekend, igniting what has become a 30-year legacy of “Bringing the Best of Broadway to The South Coast.”
Join us next week when we will focus on our second decade and the Broadway Blockbusters that made New Bedford Festival Theatre a force to be reckoned with.