When you’ve spent weeks in rehearsal in full drag, trying to master up to 10 costume changes, all while dancing in various length heels, you’re ready for a little field trip. For the ensemble members of Outfront Theatre’s production of “La Cage Aux Folles,” that field trip consisted of riding down Peachtree Street on the tallest and arguably the most colorful float in Atlanta’s 2019 Pride parade — in the rain.
“Feathers do not do well in the rain!” laughs Tyler Sarkis, who portrays Chantal in the iconic Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman musical playing at the city’s LGBTQ+ theater through Saturday. “We all agreed there is nothing good about soggy drag. But it totally bonded us as a cast. The Cagelles were all there in every color of the rainbow, having the time of our lives.”
Adds Willis Hao, who plays Bitelle in the show: “My wig actually collected water. It was like water-testing the costumes, especially with how much we sweat in the show. We were all suffering in the heels and exhausted from rehearsal the night before. Finally, we just said ‘Fuck it’ and everyone had a mimosa and a lot of fun together. What’s better than being with your friends and doing drag on top of the biggest float in the Pride parade?”
“La Cage” fans old and young, gay and straight, have been packing into Outfront to see the production of the Tony Award-winning hit that first opened on Broadway in 1983. Based on the 1978 French film of the same name, the story centers on Georges (Tony Hayes) and Albin (Clint Clark-Duke), a longtime gay couple who run a popular drag club whose lives are turned upside down when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (Aaron Schilling) returns home to announce his engagement to Ann (Melanie Sheahan), the daughter of a homophobic local politician (Robert Wayne). Originally staged during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, songs from the show like “I Am What I Am” immediately became gay anthems for acceptance.
For Sarkis, 29, who just wrapped “Mary Poppins” at City Springs Theatre in Sandy Springs before going into rehearsal for “La Cage” and Hao, 21, who is a senior at Emory University studying theatre, dance and medicine, who was in the immensely popular Aurora Theatre debut of “Men With Money” last season, the message of “La Cage Aux Folles” remains more relevant than ever.
“In musical theatre, this is one of those huge dance shows that every dancer wants to do,” says Sarkis. “But we also had a lot of conversations as a cast about why the themes of ‘La Cage’ still matter. Yes, we now live in a world where it’s acceptable to be out but then, you hear news stories about people being kicked out of restaurants in Texas for being gay. The show’s messages still need to be heard.”
“I love how normalized Georges and Albin’s relationship is in the show,” says Hao. “A lot of pieces that are about queer culture and the LGBTQ+ community tend to be coming out stories. This is different. This piece just resonated with me.”
But for both Hao and Sarkis, transforming into Bitelle and Chantal nightly requires a lot of technical effort and a willingness for each actor to break out of his established comfort zone.
“I came into this kind of cold,” says Hao. “I had played Edna in ‘Hairspray’ but someone else did my make up for that. For this, it took a lot of workshopping to figure out what would look good on my face and body. The first time we did full make up, I looked awful! I’m still experimenting even now. You want to walk out and look beautiful.”
“Doing drag is an entirely new universe for me,” says Sarkis. “I won’t lie, it was a little bit mortifying. There’s something in the LGBT culture, especially with men, this idea that we have to be masculine. It’s something that I personally struggle with a lot. So, it’s been interesting embracing this extremely feminine character. To be in this show that encourages me to dive a little deeper into that flamboyancy of being gay has been a huge challenge to me.”
Meanwhile, performing in various length heels for three hours each night is another challenge entirely. “We got our shoes maybe two weeks before opening,” says Hao. “We had to get it down pretty quickly. I had very light experience dancing in heels before this. It came down to walking around in heels, especially our highest heels, a lot. The lower heels are definitely easier but I still stumble and roll my ankles on stage. Thankfully, during the week at Emory, I get to sit in class and recover a bit.”
“Each night it feels like I’m having a full core workout, trying to figure out how I stand still in these things!” says Sarkis laughing. “It’s been an interesting challenge for a lot of the cast. It’s one thing to be a trained dancer but what does it take to be a trained dancer in heels? We’re all figuring it out.”
With eight to ten costume changes a piece throughout “La Cage,” the members of the musical’s ensemble have zero opportunity to mentally check out during the fast-paced show. Says Sarkis: “My fastest change is in the opening number where I go from this full bird feathers outfit and have to ditch my backpack, my head dress and a few other things, switch heels from four inch heels into point shoes, all in about 15 seconds. Thankfully, Marcie [Millard] who plays Mrs. Renaud, helps me with that. She’s doing my shoes while I’m ripping off everything up top!”
Backstage, Willis Hao is right beside Sarkis, having his own costume change challenges. “In the opening number, I go from a leather dominatrix outfit to a bathing suit and swim cap in seconds,” says Hao laughing. “I’m back there throwing jewelry!”
For both actors, the lessons learned during the Outfront Theatre run of “La Cage Aux Folles” will remain.
“The musical’s message about living an authentic life is always going to resonate with me,” says Hao. “I had a conversation with my mom recently when she asked, ‘Why do you like to tell people that you’re gay?’ I said to her that it’s important because growing up East Asian, I was told that emotions and femininity were all things that I should avoid. I told my mom, ‘By being gay, by being happily, openly gay, I’m letting other people know that East Asian queer people exist. If you are struggling with this intersect between East Asian and queer, there is a place for you in society. You can be happy.’ Being open is something I will never not do. It’s about inviting other people to be themselves.”
Adds Sarkis: “I recently made a post on social media about the challenges of this role, especially being so effeminate. It’s something that I worry about constantly. It’s been really eye opening to me that I can embrace this side of myself. That’s something the show is teaching me — to embrace myself. That it’s OK for me to be exactly who I am.”
Top Photo by Diane Haymes for Outfront Theatre.
“La Cage Aux Folles” runs through Saturday, Nov. 9 at Outfront Theatre, 999 Brady Ave., NW, Atlanta. For tickets or more info: outfronttheatre.com.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.