Music Theater Works showcased its musical “La Cage aux Folles” from March 10 to April 3, featuring Wayne State alum Jason Richards and former RuPaul’s Drag Race participant Ginger Minj.
The musical is set on the French Riviera and follows the themes of family, love and queer relationships. Georges and drag queen Albin— played by Minj— navigate their relationship and interactions with future in-laws throughout the production.
Richards said Georges has a son that plans to get married, though the father of the daughter he wishes to marry is very conservative, which causes complications for Georges and Albin.
“So the son wants the couple to pretend that they’re straight for a night so that they can get through tonight and that they can get married and live happily ever after,” Richards said. “But mostly that means Albin, who is like a big drag star and kind of is more of a woman in a relationship, has to act completely differently, has to change who she is to pretend to be somebody else.”
Assistant Director for “La Cage aux Folles” Tommy Novak said they participated in casting Richards for his role.
“We really needed to find someone who could match (Minj) acting wise and go toe-to-toe with her comically,” Novak said.
Linda Madonia, assistant music director and conductor for “La Cage aux Folles,” said Richards created great performances with Minj.
“… he was working opposite Ginger Minj, who comes from not only the acting world, but also comes from the RuPaul’s Drag Race world, which is a different kind of performance than a traditional theater performance,” Madonia said. “So she would go off and sort of do her stuff with the audience, and then it would really be up to Jason to pull her back into the play, and they really had great chemistry that way.”
Richards said in an April 12 email to The South End that the Actors ‘Equity Association is a stage actors’ union and actors involved are called equity actors, while those who aren’t are called non-equity actors.
Novak said the production was non-equity, while most actors in Chicago are equity-based and work for bigger equity-based productions.
“We called in a bunch of older leading man types who are non-equity, but they just weren’t as strong. And I suggested, ‘do you know Jason Richards?’ … we have never worked together on a project, but we’ve worked on similar projects, “Novak said. “And I was like, ‘call him in. I guarantee you, you’re going to love him, ‘and the director called them in and within like the first read, he was like,’ yeah, that’s it. ‘”
Novak said Richards’ strengths included being able to work well alongside Minj.
“The further we get away from this type of musical— like musical comedy— the harder it is to cultivate it… because Ginger would ad-lib and invent a bit on the spot, and Jason was right there to send it back to her or invent it back, ”Novak said. “And that’s something that’s really hard to find in someone where they’re fast enough to think of a joke and make it land in a very earnest, fast, truthful way.”
Madonia said this musical is significant for LGBTQ representation in theater.
“’La Cage aux Folles’ was written at a time when queer representation was not really accepted. Late 70s, early 80s, if you were gay, you would probably have been gravitated towards the theater, but you wouldn’t have necessarily been accepted in other places, “Madonia said. “And now that queer representation is sort of being found everywhere this show has immense relevance because it sort of set the stage for it all 30 years ago.”
Richards said productions like this are important for non-LGBTQ viewers to be exposed to.
“In its time, ‘La Cage aux Folles’ came about in the 70s and 80s. And I mean, it was huge to see men dressed as women on a Broadway stage, ”Richards said. “… and now you kind of look at it and you think, ‘Oh, this is quaint or it’s a little vintage or something like that,’ but the stuff that’s happening in the United States today, the (anti-LGBTQ) bills that are getting passed, we realize that this play is more relevant than ever and needs to be performed even more because it gives the message without hitting you over the head with it. ”
Richards’ next role will be in the musical “SKATES,” from May 24 to August 28, which also features former American Idol participants Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young.
Ashley Harris is the arts and entertainment editor for The South End. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover photo provided by James Juliano.