‘La Cage aux Folles’ kicks off Summer Lyric season

Founded in 1968, Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre has done its part to fight the summer doldrums in New Orleans for 45 years.

This year, the theater offers three classic, and very different, musicals, one in each month of the summer.

On the marquee are Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles” this Thursday through Sunday; Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” July 11-14; and Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” Aug. 1-4.

All three shows are staged in Dixon Hall on the Tulane campus, and tickets are now on sale through the Summer Lyric Theatre box office.

SLT’s trio of productions for summer 2013 reflects the trademark styles of three titans of American musical theater. The plays were selected for their distinctiveness, according to Summer Lyric artistic director B. Michael Howard, who has been involved in the program in various capacities from the beginning.

“We have three classic musicals here, all in different styles, trying to reach a balance with the audience,” Howard explained. “The first one is very flashy; big Jerry Herman style, like ‘Mame’ and ‘Hello Dolly.’ A lot of dance, a lot of sparkle, a lot of costumes, a lot of great show tunes. And then you have Sondheim’s classic, which is not a huge show, but it’s beautiful. You don’t have the chorus and the dancing, but you have beautiful costumes, classic songs and wonderful orchestration.

“And then you’ve got Cole Porter and, of course, everyone’s familiar with that music. All three of these musicals look very different in time, venue, costumes, the sound of the music, the look of the show, the sets and more. So there will be no repeating of styles in these three.”

Howard continued, “Usually somebody will say, ‘I don’t like this show but I like the other two.’ This year for the first time I’m hearing everyone say it’s a fabulous season. And I think it is also.”

“La Cage aux Folles” (loosely translated from French as “the cage of effeminate men”) is based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret. Georges, the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and his partner and star Albin (Zaza), are at the center of the musical comedy. When Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, becomes engaged, Georges and Albin must meet her conservative parents.

Leading the cast are two household names in New Orleans live theater circles, Bob Edes Jr. (Albin/“Zaza”) and Kristopher Lloyd “Kris” Shaw (Georges). Noah Ricketts, a visiting actor from Cincinnati, is Jacob, Albin’s personal assistant, and Dan Iwrey, a Tulane graduate now enrolled in NYU Grad School, is Jean-Michel.

The Cagelles, the chorus members at the La Cage club, are all local New Orleans actors. Five are men in drag and the other three are women.

“You can’t tell them apart. That’s how good a job our costuming and makeup departments have done,” Howard said.

Howard also related a little-known fact he learned while researching the show’s production history: “La Cage” was originally planned to be set on Bourbon Street. “Only later on did they decide to set it on the French Riviera,” Howard said.

Backing this production and the two remaining Summer Lyric shows is a Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra contingent of 28 musicians.

This is very untypical of Broadway shows today, according to Howard, who pointed out that most of them now use small combos and synthesized music.

“We keep that original orchestration intact and our local musicians in jobs,” he said.

Howard, who is the head of Tulane’s Musical Theatre Department during the rest of the year, will also be directing “A Little Night Music” in July. Diane Lala will direct SLT’s finale, “Kiss Me Kate.”

Looking back on his long tenure as the head of SLT, Howard mused, “I hope we can keep Summer Lyric going for another 46 years and keep New Orleans actors and musicians working. That is our goal.”