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'La Cage aux Folles' celebrates cross-dressing

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sequins, ostrich feathers, false eyelashes, silver-heeled tap shoes, wigs and guys in frocks and girdles take over the Benedum Center this week.

Drag is on display in the national touring production of "La Cage aux Folles," the Tony Award-winning musical about St. Tropez nightclub owner Georges; his long-time partner Albin, who also is the club's star female impersonator, Zaza; and Georges' soon-to-be-married son, Jean-Michel, who was sired during Georges' youthful experimentation with a chorus girl.

When Jean-Michel proposes a getting-to-know-you dinner to introduce his fiancee and her very conservative parents to his fabulous, but nontraditional, family, he asks his dad to substitute his detached, but female, bio-mom for Albin, who raised him.

Confusion, hysterics, hurt feelings, mistaken identities and comedy ensue to a Jerry Herman score of tunes that include the anthem "I Am What I Am," "The Best of Times" and, of course, the title song.

It's a tale of family bonds and values embellished by the glitz, glitter and over-the-top glamor and the fun of men masquerading as women.

Whether you call it cross-dressing, female impersonation or drag, watching men perform in high heels, elaborate wigs, dresses and full makeup can be as much fun for the actor as the audience.

Contemporary actors who take on cross-gender roles are planting their stiletto heels on a path begun with ancient Greek actors who first played Electra and the Shakespearean-era actors who originated Juliet when women were banned from appearing on stage.

Films such as "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Tootsie" and "Some Like It Hot" top lots of viewers' Top 10 lists. The genre has gone increasingly mass market as audiences can be found watching the broad comedy of drag-queen divas on "RuPaul's Drag Race," now in its third season on Logo TV. Tyler Perry's succession of movies and stage plays featuring him as the sassy, outspoken grandmother Madea, and Martin Lawrence dressed as "Big Momma" follow the trend.

"Speaking as an actor, I can assure you there is not more fun in theater than the cross-dressing role," says Alan Stanford, who, last summer, played Lady Bracknell in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."

It's not some form of surreptitious transvestitism, Stanford says.

"It's the genuine process of characterization that all actors take," he says, "but taken to a new and complex level."

Bloomfield resident Aaron Coady, whom some will recognize as Sharon Needles, a "RuPaul's Drag Race" competitor, finds drag to be liberating.

"Drag creates a metaphoric mask to hide your insecurities," says Coady, who began dabbling with his mothers' makeup when he was 4. "Sharon is definitely not me. I'm not responsible for my actions as Sharon."

"La Cage aux Folles" performer Todd Lattimore finds the freedom to be as outrageous, flamboyant and outspoken as he pleases is part of the attraction of becoming Lili, a character he invented 10 years ago and revived when "La Cage aux Folles" director Terry Johnson asked him to become a greeter for the show.

Lattimore does a pre-show performance that begins outside the theater, where Lili engages the arriving audience with outrageous banter and observations.

"Basically, I'm doing improvisational standup. I change the material from city to city," Lattimore says.

"People say: 'How does Lili get away with saying what she does?' It's like being an 80-year-old woman. I get to say exactly what I want," he says.

Lattimore says the reason audiences love Lili no matter what she says is that they want to play the game with her and laugh with her, not at her.

Drag can help to set and support the tone of a show, says Jonathan Visser, who plays talent agent Sylvia St. Croix in the CLO Cabaret production of "Ruthless! The Musical" at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.

"Ruthless!" is a spoofy comedy about an ambitious grade-school girl who kills a classmate to get the starring role in the annual musical.

"If you read the script literally, it's a terrible, terrible tragedy," Visser says. "Having the largest, most extreme character performed by a man sets the tone for the play ... a man in drag sets the tone -- the more ridiculous, the better. It gives you permission to laugh when you see a 6-foot-tall man addressing the audience as a woman."

Being a larger-than-life character doesn't mean abandoning reality entirely, actors warn.

"Everything I do, from the way I smell, to the way I walk, it really trickles down to embody the character of the woman to complete the transformation," Lattimore says.

Visser agrees.

"I approach it the same as I do any part -- aside from wearing heels from the first day of rehearsal. 'Who am I• What do I want.' The questions are the same but in a different form," he says.

Taking on a female character can be a learning experience, Stanford says.

"It teaches you so much about the play, the role and the audience," he says, "especially in their willingness to accept the magic of illusion upon which the act of theater so completely depends."

For Hamilton, show must go on

It takes more than a torn Achilles tendon to keep George Hamilton from performing.

At age 72, he's playing eight performances a week as Georges, the entrepreneur of the St. Tropez nightclub and the long-time committed partner of the club's star drag queen, Albin, aka Zaza (played by Christopher Sieber).

Hamilton tore the tendon in his left foot soon after rehearsals began last fall for the national touring production of "La Cage aux Folles," which opens Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

His doctor advised him to quit the show and spend six to eight months wearing a cast that would allow the tear to heal.

Instead, Hamilton chose to stay with the musical by having the foot wrapped to create a false tendon.

"It meant I wouldn't be able to dance. But I can move," Hamilton says.

Hamilton is best known for his on-screen appearances in films such as "The Light in the Piazza," "Zorro, The Gay Blade" and "Love at First Bite."

But, every so often, he likes a change of pace by performing on stage.

"The trick is not to get put into one box." he says. "Try everything."

Early in his career, Hamilton began filling in periods between movies with roles at dinner theaters in Florida, and he has done three stints on Broadway as the manipulative lawyer Billy Flynn in "Chicago."

"I didn't want to go back and do 'Chicago'," Hamilton says.

But he had long been a fan of director Edouard Molinaro's original 1978 "La Cage aux Folles" movie and liked the story's theme of the importance of love.

"I did it as an homage to my half-brother Bill," Hamilton says. "(He) was gay, and I knew what he went through."

While he took care of Bill while he was dying, Hamilton asked him what he would do differently.

"He said he would love more," Hamilton says. "He left that in my mind."

Last week, Hamilton had reached the tour's halfway point without missing any of the 150 performances.

"I took it as a personal challenge to double that," he says. "It's a killer pace. I've done more difficult things, but not continually. At the weekend, you have five shows in a row. ... There's a stamina that starts to form by repetition. If you don't take time for yourself and guard it, it will go in the other direction."

What keeps Hamilton going is his fans.

"Across the country, there's a world of people who grew up with you and are not detached from what you have done as well as what you're doing," he says. "It's a payoff to shake hands with people who know you."

Additional Information:

'La Cage aux Folles'

Presented by: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. March 18

Admission: $20-$71

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

Details: 412-456-6666 or

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