Jon Jon Briones triumphs, from London to LA
LOS ANGELES—“I can’t seem to get away from owning a club and wearing red jackets!” exclaimed Jon Jon Briones. In our recent interview, he talked about how he had barely hung his red silk jacket as The Engineer in the London revival of “Miss Saigon.”
And yet, here he was in an LA theater, in a scarlet jacket again, welcoming guests to his club, not in Saigon this time, but in St. Tropez, France.
I thought of Jon Jon’s Olivier award-nominated portrayal of the Vietnam hustler, who happens to be, by coincidence, part French. As in “Miss Saigon,” Jon Jon was surrounded by gyrating showgirls, but as “La Cage aux Folles” got underway at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, the similarity ended there.
This joint owner is Georges, a sweet, loving man—poles apart from the cynical, bitter and self-centered The Engineer. And in this fun, funny and emotionally effective revival of “La Cage aux Folles” by East West Players (EWP), the longest running professional theater of color in the United States, Jon Jon is charismatic and endearing as the partner of Albin, a flamboyant drag queen (an equally effective Gedde Watanabe).
The actor’s rich baritone is showcased in several songs in the musical by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman (based on a French play), whose Broadway original and two revival productions won several Tony Awards.
Jean Poiret’s 1973 play also inspired a Franco-Italian comedy film and an American remake starring the late Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
After his triumphant two-year reign as The Engineer in the West End, Jon Jon had planned to relax first with his family in LA who are all, remarkably, actors—wife Megan, daughter Isa and son Teo.
But Georges was too meaty a role to pass up. In this revival by Tim Dang, his last production to direct as producing artistic director of EWP for over two decades, Jon Jon and Gedde are topnotch as a gay couple who owns a drag club and whose lives are upturned when Georges’ son announces that he will marry the daughter of ultraconservative parents.
Several decades after its debut, the musical, featuring a solid cast, still had the power to make the audience laugh—a lot—and even cry! Amid the howls and fabulous costumes is a tender story. Reggie Lee, the FilAm actor who stars in the “Grimm” TV series, shows off one of his multiple talents—he’s the show’s choreographer.
The audience in a recent preview performance responded with a standing ovation.
Jon Jon made a wise move to forego his R&R for now. He can take his well-deserved vacation after “La Cage” ends its run.
In the meantime, if you can, do not miss Jon Jon and this show, which goes on until June 26. (More details at eastwestplayers.org.)
Excerpts from our chat:
You just came home to LA after your grueling two-year stint as The Engineer in London. What made you decide to plunge into the Georges role?
Summer is slow in Hollywood… the offer to do Georges in “La Cage” came at the right time. My wife, Megan, encouraged me to take the role after Reggie Lee first discussed the possibility.
This is something I have never done before. I thought it would be a good challenge as an actor to embrace the role.
And so far, has it been worth postponing your break from work?
I always jump at the opportunity to work on good projects, because they don’t necessarily come by that often. I am very glad I was able to do this.
When was the first time you saw “La Cage”—either live, DVD or online?
The first time was in the Philippines in the late ‘80s, just before I went to London, if I am not mistaken. Repertory Philippines was doing a production and many of my friends were in it. It was very good, a lot of fun.
What do you think of “The Birdcage,” the American film adaptation of the original French play? Was the late Robin Williams’ take on Armand (the name of Georges’ character in this film version) an inspiration?
I saw the movie when it first came out. I was living in Germany then, and I loved it! The relationship of the two main characters is so real and beautiful, like any couple.
The casting was perfect: Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane and of course, Robin Williams—it was unlike anything he’d played before.
How did you establish your rapport with Gedde Watanabe to portray a couple?
I had never met Gedde, though of course, I knew of him. Tim Dang is very smart when it comes to developing chemistry between his actors. He organized a dinner at a restaurant before we even began rehearsals. People always develop rapport over a bottle of wine! My first impression of Gedde—fun, crazy and very real.
Both Georges and The Engineer are hosts of club shows. How are they similar and different?
The Engineer is only concerned about himself and getting what he wants at any cost, while Georges is a family man and would do anything for his family, no matter the cost.
What’s it like to be choreographed by your friend and fellow actor, Reggie Lee?
My dear friend Reggie is one of the most patient people in the business. He made a lot of us nondancers look good, and he is always supportive and complimentary, even when we couldn’t get the easiest steps.
How much fun are you having being around the actors playing fabulous showgirls in “La Cage,” Les Cagelles?
Our five Cagelles are amazing! And you can tell that by the reaction of our preview audiences. They can’t get enough of them.
Can you talk about how, in 2016, there’s still discrimination against LGBT people?
Things have gotten better, and progress has certainly been made since the 1970s, but there is still much work to be done, as evidenced by recent events here in the States and abroad. Doing this show made me realize even more how similar we all are.
As a dad, how does “La Cage’s” take on parent-children relationships move you?
As a parent, you know you’d sacrifice anything for your child. I love my kids, but it goes to show Georges is probably a better father than I am, because I would never agree to this.
How are you adjusting to being back in LA?
I love being back in LA!
But I don’t like driving again. I liked it when I had a 10-minute walk to work.
What’s it like to be part of a household where everyone—you, Megan, Isa and Teo—is an actor?
In our household, there is a lot of laughter, crying and drama. We talk about the same things together because the children know and understand what we are talking about.
What is wonderful is that we can communicate about the highs and the lows. And because of that open communication we have always had about our lives, the children feel comfortable opening up to us if they have problems.
Talk about Teo landing the role of Jeremy Renner’s son in “Wind River.”
I was in London when Megan told me that Teo booked “Wind River.” I was very excited for him to be working on this film with Jeremy Renner, and the director, Taylor Sheridan.
Teo had been through several auditions and knew he was on a very short list. But he had to wait about two weeks for the final decision.
What are you looking forward to on your Broadway debut next year?
I am looking forward to going back to New York, where Megan and I lived for quite some time, and doing something significant there.
I look forward to being part of the Broadway community. I have a lot of friends on Broadway. Making my Broadway debut at 50 only goes to show it is never too late!
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