“And so what if I love each feather and each spangle? / Why not try to see things from a different angle? / Your life is a sham ’til you can shout out loud: I am what I am!” Zaza, the show-stopping diva, belted out with gusto to an appreciative audience at the premiere weekend of W!LD RICE ProductionsLa Cage aux Folles.

Shocking lyrics these may have been in 1983 when the musical was first introduced on Broadway, but with wildly popular songs like Lady Gaga’s “Born this way” hinting at pretty much the same thing, and gay dads/boyfriends featuring prominently in the Glee series, and Pink Dot is a cause more people rally around, the subject matter hardly raises an eyebrow these days among youths.

But even if you’re jaded, the sheer force and magnetism of Ivan Heng, who plays the lead role of Zaza/Albin, makes you sit up and consider the empowering lyrics from the musical’s iconic anthem, “I Am What I Am”, and the underlying message of the show, which is delivered with unapologetic audacity and panache.

“It has a wonderful message, which says that life is transient and fragile, and so you have to live, and you have to love, as hard as you know how. And for that reason, you also need to live life on your own terms,” the veteran thespian tells UrbanWire.

10 years in the making, W!LD RICE’s adaptation of the 11 Tony-awards-nominated musical has been reimagined in more ways than one. In their signature style, W!LD RICE has  relocated the show from St. Tropez to Tanjong Pagar. Without compromising on its essence, the script has also been given some local flair from the chee pow kai [paper-wrapped chicken] dinner Albin slaves over to the Hokkien dialogue with the coffee shop owners. Striking a chord with audiences was Zaza’s monologue preceding the end of Act One, which took jibes at our recent local affairs – such as MRT train disruptions and the City Harvest church debacle – leaving the audience in stitches. That it was seamlessly integrated into the cabaret performance made it all the more priceless.

For those unfamiliar with the story, or The Birdcage, the 1996 movie starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane based on the same Jean Poiret play, this is a tale of George, who owns/runs the world-renowned nightclub, La Cage aux Folles, and Albin his lover of 20 years, who is also the club’s headlining act – the glamorous drag queen Zaza. Farcical chaos ensues when their son, Jonathon announces that he wants to marry the daughter of a straight-laced right-wing politician whose main order of business is to shut down the very kind of club that has kept food on their table. Family bonds are put to the test as the boy implores his “mother” Albin to leave the house so he can get his biological mum to keep appearances that theirs is a normal family.


“This is a musical which has values that are very important to me, values which our country espouses -values like tolerance, diversity, acceptance, understanding, family and of course – love,” the musical’s director, Glen Goei said at the media preview.

Director Glen Goei speaking at the media preview at the Esplanade

What’s more, this production has also been given a modern twist, and is set in the present day. Despite first being staged nearly 30 years ago, it’s apparent that the themes – same-sex marriage and sexual freedom – that are pursued unabashedly in the acclaimed musical transcend the test of time.

Malaysian actor Aaron Khaled who plays Jonathon tells UrbanWire in an exclusive interview, “Actually, I think La Cage is a lot more relevant today than it was back then because everyone now is standing up for who they believe they truly are, and to put that in the Singapore context is really special. It’s a huge step forward for Asia.” .



The personable Aaron Khaled at the media preview of La Cage aux Folles

Despite this being his first foray into the Singapore theatre scene, the 24-year-old was quick to prove that he truly is the whole package: a handsome face with delightful vocals matching that of a Disney prince.

Fellow Malaysian Tony Eusoff lends an endearing charm to his role as Khaled’s on-stage father, George. His cool and understated performance was the ideal counterpoint to Ivan Heng’s flamboyant Zaza/Albin. That said, the seasoned performer was not once overshadowed by his partner’s larger-than-life persona. Not only did he bring his impressive acting chops to the table, the suave Eusoff showcased his rich baritone in solo numbers (“Song on the Sand”, “Look Over There”). Eusoff and Heng are more than believable as a couple, and the contagious chemistry between the perfectly adorable pair seems effortless.

The infectious chemistry between the two – Tony Eusoff (left) and Ivan Heng (right) – makes it’s a treat to watch them as the adorable couple George and Albin

Not surprisingly, it is Heng who truly steals the show presenting his versatility by literally running the gamut from A to Z with his stirring performance of both Albin and Zaza. Where Zaza’s portrayed with vivacious fabulosity, Albin sheds that superfluous exterior showing his true side – although melodramatic, he’s at heart a doting parent. The serial stage cross-dresser (Heng who has been feted for the leading role, Emily, in the iconic local monologue play, Emily of Emerald Hill) possesses a commanding stage presence, not to mention legs women would kill for, that makes stepping into Zaza’s high heels seem like a cakewalk.

A host of other popular local talents have been roped in to form the supporting cast. Veteran actress Tan Kheng Hua landed the role of cheeky restaurant host, Jacqueline while the ever-exuberant Hossan Leong is a hoot as the over-the-top butler-maid Jacob/Claudine. Not to mention, no strangers to the stage, actors Karen Tan and Darius Tan play the future in-laws to a T.


Hossan Leong lights up the stage as the mincing domestic helper, Jacob/Claudine

Of course, a review of La Cage wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the chorus line of flashy, gender-bending showgirls – Les Cagelles, consisting of top talents all the way from New York, London, Australia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The challengingly strenuous dance routines – which include jumping into splits multiple times and which showed off the muscular form of the dancers – are clearly not meant for amateurs. Yet, in another scene, the formerly feminine dancers converted readily into brawny military personnel.


Lee Brigman (left) with fellow Cagelle Kari Cuffe (right) at the media preview. “It’s quite a spectrum of all of our skills being used in every scene,” one of the 4 women in the ensemble of 12 Les Cagelles, Australian dancer Kari told UrbanWire.

“It was really crucial to have had some training,” one of the Cagelles Lee Brigman, a former finalist on UK’s version of popular reality TV competition So You Think You Can Dance, shared with UrbanWire. While the choreography was indeed enrapturing, certain routines  such as the main number could have been better synchronised.

In spite of that, the Cagelles were brilliant in terms of showmanship. The ensembleof a dozen showgirls was truly a feast for the eyes even in the costume department, clad in eye-popping, exquisite costumes by Frederick Lee, one of Singapore’s most sought-after designers.

From the media preview to opening night, Les Cagelles looked sensational in their striking costumes by local designer Frederick Lee.

CK Chia should be commended on his impeccable set design, expertly capturing the mis-en-scene of the entire musical – from the visually overwhelming nightclub, including the jaw-droppingly massive peacock proscenium, to the humble tian tian lai neighbourhood coffee shop that George and Albin frequent. However, the set transitions between scenes did take a tad too long, possibly because you can’t wait to see what happens next.

Also spotted at the premiere was local theatre performer Erwin Shah Ismail (Spring Awakening and Romeo And Juliet). “It’s almost like a milestone musical where we see it for the first time – the whole idea of LGBTs,” he told UrbanWire. “La Cage is a celebration and they’ve done it beautifully – particularly, the beauty in the portrayal of Jonathan and Anne… I’ve realized how pivotal their roles are in this musical [because] how the younger generation feel towards these things will drive forward the future.”

At the heart of it, La Cage aux Folles is so much more than just bling, sequins and feathers, and unforgettable dancing. As unconventional a family Jonathon has, it truly hits a universal note among audiences with its overarching theme that true love can conquer all.

Photo credits: Kelly Ho, W!LD RICE Productions and Sistic