By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment
“Oh my God, I’ve never put on this much makeup in my life!” said Gedde Watanabe last week, as he prepared for a dress rehearsal.
Watanabe burst onto the Hollywood scene in the 1980s, with Asian character roles in “Gung Ho” and “Sixteen Candles.” Now at age 60, he is taking on the role of Albin, the high-strung star performer of a drag show nightclub in East West Players’ production of the Broadway mega-hit “La Cage aux Folles.”
“I’m pretty proud of myself,” Watanabe told The Rafu. “It’s a such a classic show, so beloved, and it’s been quite a challenge.”
With more than 80 film and television credits on his resume, Watanabe first caught the acting bug in stage productions while in high school in Utah. He originated the role of the Boy in a Tree in the Broadway musical “Pacific Overtures” before finding stardom in movies. During the 1990s, he returned to the stage to study and hone his craft of live performing.
“I’d better do this now, because in a few years, who knows, everything will start to fall apart,” he joked about his part in the EWP production, now running through June 26.
The show will also be the final effort for EWP for producing artistic director Tim Dang, who is stepping down after this season.
“This venue is perfect for Tim’s vision,” Watanabe explained. “It’s a smaller theater, and I think he is drawing some inspiration from the ‘ladyboy’ shows in Thailand. We had to do it on a comparatively small budget, but the most fun has been watching how well it’s all come together.”
Watanabe said the actors on stage, including co-star Jon Jon Briones, who plays Georges, the owner of the nightclub, have benefitted from the reactions of early audiences, absorbing their energy as well as feeling their moods.
“They laugh, they cheer, even some frowns. I thought we were ready, but the more we run through it, the better it gets,” he said.
“The most crucial thing is the relationship of the two leads – Georges and Albin. If there isn’t a good love relationship there, the show doesn’t work. Jon Jon is really grounded, so the relationship works.”
Watanabe has plenty of projects to keep him busy these days, including some writing for the stage. He said he has never taken his success for granted, mainly because he isn’t entirely sure why he’s been so fortunate in his career.
“There’s a part of me that never figures it out,” he said. “Sometimes I do simply do what they tell me, sometimes the feeling is just there, and it works. Either way, I’ve been pretty lucky and I’m having a great time.”
“La Cage aux Folles” runs through June 26 at the David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St. (between First and Temple) in Little Tokyo. Performances run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $48, For more information, visit www.eastwestplayers.org or call (213) 625-7000.