‘La Cage’ visits San Diego with Carmel Valley actor at the forefront

San Diego Musical Theatre (SDMT) announces the third production of its 2015 season, “La Cage Aux Folles.” Run dates are from Sept. 25 through Oct. 11, and it will be staged at Spreckels Theatre.

Playing co-lead is Carmel Valley resident Robert J. Townsend, starring as Georges. He plays alongside David Engel as Albin (who was in the original “La Cage Aux Folles” cast on Broadway). Local actress Debra Wanger plays the role of Marie Dindon.

“La Cage aux Folles” was a 1973 French play, then a 1978 French movie. The 1983 Broadway musical was written by Harvey Fierstein, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. That stage production inspired the 1996 movie “The Birdcage,” starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Townsend said that he didn’t have to audition for his role, as director Larry Raben selected him specifically to be cast alongside Engel, Townsend’s reputation having preceded him.

An award-winning actor — honored with an Ovation Award for best actor in a musical for his title role in “Jekyll and Hyde” — Townsend has traveled nationally and most recently appeared in “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway. His national tours include roles in “Jersey Boys,” “Camelot,” “Grease” and “Radio City.”

“La Cage Aux Folles” tells the story of Georges, the owner of a St. Tropez nightclub, and his partner, Albin, who performs as the chanteuse Zaza. When Georges’s son brings home his fiancée’s conservative parents to meet the couple, the bonds of family are put to the test.

In real life, Townsend is married to actress Jill Townsend; their first baby, Chase, is now a month old, “He’s the sweetest, most darling little precious nugget,” said Townsend. “We are really thrilled.”

The happy event has not slowed down the couple’s careers. Jill Townsend is the associate artistic director and captain director for SDMT, casting for “Ragtime,” and is learning how to balance being a mom and being a theater professional. “She’s supermom,” said Townsend.

The couple have lived in Carmel Valley for about a year, having met 15 years ago while working at the Welk Resort Theater in Escondido. “I knew we’d eventually come back to San Diego,” said Townsend. They had previously lived in Los Angeles and New York.

He refers to his inroad into acting as his accidental career. His best friend was auditioning for a role in “Something’s Afoot,” a school musical at Burbank High School.

The two normally walked home together, so Townsend hung back and decided on a whim to audition, too. “I auditioned with ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ because I didn’t have anything else prepared. I got cast and he didn’t!”

As a young adult, Townsend did musicals for fun; he didn’t have his first voice lesson until he was 20 years old. “It was a summertime kind of a thing. I met a lot of friends and had a good time. Then suddenly I started getting paid to do it, taking on tours and big roles. I’ve been doing this for 25 years now. It’s what I love to do the most.”

Townsend considers himself an actor/singer first; dancing is something that he had to learn on the job, he said. He considers himself a good mover, not a good dancer.

Karl Warden is choreographer for SDMT’s production — he also choreographed the show on Broadway. Warden was coaching Townsend rehearsing a number with Engel.

“We started doing some serious dancing, and somebody who was in the back row watching said, ‘Oh my God, Robert, you can really dance!’ But I’m still not convinced.”

Performing in San Diego is a treat, because it is such a rich town for theater, said Townsend. “I’m thrilled to be able to put the suitcase down and be creative right here at home starring in ‘La Cage,’” he said.

The musical is a beautiful piece about family and love and acceptance, Townsend commented. “The cast is spectacular, and Spreckels is such a beautiful venue, I think this will be a really special show.”

For individual tickets, contact the Administrative Office at 858-560-5740 or visit SDMT online at www.sdmt.org. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The show runs from Sept. 25 through Oct. 11. The Spreckels Theatre is in the Spreckels Building, 121 Broadway #600, San Diego, CA 92101

Visit www.jillandrobert.com to learn more about Jill and Robert J. Townsend.

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