It takes acting savvy and no small amount of courage to be a straight man playing a gay man interacting with a straight character who thinks the other guy is gay.
That was a scene Robbie Thomas found himself in as Georges, one of the lead characters in Footlight Players’ recent production of the hit musical, La Cage aux Folles.
The story is about Georges and his long-time partner Albin. They run a French drag club in which Albin is the star of the show. One day, their son Jean-Michel comes home to announce he’s engaged to the daughter of a conservative politician.
Not a problem except that Jean-Michel doesn’t want Albin, the transvestite whose stage name is ZaZa, to meet him over dinner.
Dinner is the scene in which Thomas tries to butch up Georges. But the attempt fails hilariously. In trying to sound macho, he just sounds psychotic.
The politician’s furtive sidelong glance is all that’s needed for the audience to crack up. But there’s more than humor at stake, Thomas says. What’s at stake is seeing the world with open eyes.
“We all understand stereotypes,” Thomas says. “But we can be blinded by them, too. In that scene, Georges has cemented in his mind that men talk about beer and sports and women. He thinks of a jock. All the girls want him, and all the guys want to be like him.”
La Cage nearly didn’t happen. About two weeks before opening late last month, the original Albin dropped out. Thomas and director Robert Ivey searched frantically for a suitable replacement. Finally, they found Brandon Joyner, a friend of Thomas. They had performed together during a staging of Reefer Madness earlier this year.
Joyner picked up the role fast and the chemistry that emerged between him and Thomas proved to be one of the show’s greatest assets. The gusto with which Georges tries to teach Albin how to walk and talk like a man is matched in spirit only by Albin’s flamboyant resistance to all manner of butching up. The chemistry keeps growing, too, Thomas says.
“We clicked right away, and every night he gets better and better,” he says.
You’d think because this is a show with a cast of men and women dressed up in the most elaborate, over-the-top showbiz gear you can find, there must be some great backstage moments. And you’d be right.
Thomas notes that all the men have to duct tape their pectoral muscles to create the illusion of cleavage.
But don’t you worry, he says. All the naughty bits, and there are a lot of them, are carefully tucked away.