Behind the costumes and the characters of Skylight's "La Cage Aux Folles"
Almost everyone has that movie or TV show they watched to death as a child (just ask a current parent about "Frozen").
For Chris March, designer and past "Project Runway" contestant, one of those special movies was "La Cage Aux Folles." The film – a big, bright comedy about a gay, nightclub-owning couple meeting the straight-laced conservative parents of their son's fiancée – was eventually adapted in the U.S. in 1996 as "The Birdcage," with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
For March, however, it was the original 1978 French version that spurred an obsession. Just a little one.
"I've seen that movie, like, over 200 times," he explained. "I just had a video tape of it, and I just watched it over and over and over again."
So when the Skylight Music Theatre reached out to March – who previously joined forces with the company for its 2015 production of "My Fair Lady" – to collaborate on its upcoming stage show of "La Cage Aux Folles," premiering Friday night, he leapt at the opportunity to take it on.
"Any musical that gives me an opportunity to make big, giant, crazy, over-the-top, Vegas showgirl-y, feathery, sparkly outfits, it's kind of right up my alley," he noted. "So when they called me up and asked me if I would design the costumes for the show, I thought, 'Well, here's my opportunity finally.'"
It's safe to say he's fully seizing that opportunity as well, as the designer – a fan favorite on "Project Runway" for his big personality and even bigger designs – has taken off with the baton passed onto him by its Oscar-nominated and Tony-winning forefathers. Taken off quite literally, considering the extravagant amount of bird feathers and bird fun piled atop March's countless custom-made costumes (literally countless; as of our interview, the designer didn't have an exact number yet but put the total at likely more than 100).
"Because it's 'The Birdcage' and everything, it lends itself toward feathers – and feathers weigh nothing, so you can put a lot of them on someone's head," March said. "We have a peacock number where there's 100 peacock on each person's head, and there's six of them – so there's 600 peacock feathers on stage at one time. There's lots of ostrich feathers, turkey feathers – we have literally thousands of feathers in the show."
Laughing, he adds: "We tried to use the bird theme all over the place, relentlessly. We kind of beat it to death as a joke, which is kind of funny. We tried to come up with things that would be visually funny that had to do with birds."
The avian influence, however, is far from the only playful part keen-eyed audience members can find stitched into March's extravagant drag outfits and the fabric of "La Cage Aux Folles." During early design conferences with the show's various creative minds, March and others discussed elements like how to handle the relative restrictions of the smaller Skylight space – turning the titular venue from a glamorous Vegas showroom into a somewhat seedy underground nightclub, for instance – and how that would then impact the costumes and choreography. They also came up with an overriding design theme for the show: transformation and metamorphosis.
"A lot of the costumes change on stage, or they change very quickly, or they have some sort of wild illusion where you can't tell what's going on at first," March explained, "because we kind of have to come up with low-tech tricks to thrill the audience. And I think we came up with a whole bunch of them."
These transformation thrills include outfits that start in one color and get reversed into a different color quickly off stage, an early costume that peels away into four other costumes – one on top of the next – and, thanks to the collaboration between March and director/choreographer John de los Santos, a whole flock of playful film references for the audience to find amongst the feathers and flamboyance.
Stage director/choreographer John de los Santos and costume designer Chris March. (PHOTO: Mary E. Maier)
"(Chris) would make a reference to somebody from an old film; he would say, 'We could do something very Norma Desmond,' and I'd say, 'I love 'Sunset Boulevard'! What about this look or this look?'" de los Santos said. "As soon as he realized I knew all of these references he had, we'd go back and forth, saying, 'Let's do something from 'Paris is Burning' and something from 'The Cockettes.' He's always thinking bigger and bigger, and I'm thinking more practical, but it was a very easy balance."
The resulting crazy costumes promise to make this production unlike one even the biggest "La Cage Aux Folles" fans have seen before.
"If you know a lot about the musical, it has a tradition that the opening number looks a certain way and it ends a certain way, and we kind of took those ideas and changed them," March said. "We didn't want everyone to just expect the same old thing that's in every production. So we went off on our way."
What looks like big, bright, colorful fun on the stage, however, is a big, giant "crucible of fire," according to March, for a month for everyone behind the show. Even before opening night hits, March already said that "La Cage" is much more difficult than his previous Skylight collaboration – one that had more than 100 costumes of its own for him to figure out.
"In 'My Fair Lady,' most of the characters are 1912 Cockney people that are dirty and disheveled," March explained. "These are men that have to be dressed as women, so you can't just buy that off the rack or borrow it from another theater. So almost everything in the show is custom-made this time. That's a big difference."
The designer does at least have a not-so-secret weapon on his resume, one that helped train him for the time-crunch crucible of live theater: the ultimate time-crunch fashion crucible, "Project Runway."
"Being on 'Project Runway,' you learn very quickly that you HAVE to get something done – which is kind of the thing behind theater too," he explained. "You cannot let someone go out on stage naked. If the show's at 8 o'clock, something's got to be done by 8 o'clock – and a lot of fashion designers do not have that timing mechanism that you learn in theater.
"So after 'Project Runway,' I learned I could be even faster. If somebody says to me we need a whole new dress by tomorrow night and that's not possible, I laugh at them. We could make a whole new dress in three hours if we had to. If you have to, you learn how to do it."
Ray Jivoff and the Cagelles in practice.
As an extra relief, at least if something does go wrong with a costume or a quick change, March noted that, thanks to the tone of the show, the actors typically play it off with a lot of fun, and the crowd usually ends up loving it. So in the end, the biggest challenge to a successful "La Café Aux Folles" is something much smaller – and at the same time just as crucial – than the huge costumes: It's making sure you find the characters who wear them.
"I can create spectacle without a lot of fuss, but drawing out the universal humanity of these characters is the much harder and more interesting part of the piece for me," de los Santos said. "There's definitely two separate things: when these characters are on stage, dealing with the audience and wearing the big elements, and then when they take off the makeup and wigs and go home to their families."
Making sure that the drama, the emotions and the messages come across feels even more important to March, de los Santos and the rest of the cast and crew after the major political events of the past year – and especially this past week. It may be a light, fun comedy, but they also believe there's a greater mission to the piece now.
"Starting (earlier this year), it was one thing, and in the last week, it's become another thing entirely," March said. "After the election, something like this is more important than ever to remind people where we've been and where we've come from and that we don't want to go back there."
"This show is ultimately about the strength of the families we're born into and the families we create, loving yourself and believing in yourself, and basically demanding acceptance, to be loved for who you are, and the struggle of that," de los Santos said. "I think it's very poignant, and I think whether people are conservative or liberal, there's something for everybody in this show because, at the heart of it, it's a show about families and a show about loving people who are good to you and have raised you and not being ashamed of where you come from."
Also: feathers. So, so many feathers.
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