La Cage aux Folles – being given a fierce, glittering new production at Signature Theatre – is très magnifique.
Director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner does not reinvent the classic show.He looks for no gimmicks, just to put his stamp on the production. Gardiner trusts the material, finds the humanity in the characters and allows his performers to soar with the material. He can now add La Cage to his list of homeruns.
Upon entering the Max Theatre, you also literally enter La Cage aux Folles, a nightclub on the French Riviera. Scenic designer Lee Savage has provided a stylistic interpretation of St. Tropez’s favorite cabaret, from the corners of the backstage make-up tables and costume racks to the eye-popping stage where the notorious showgirl/guys, the Cagelles, and their leading lady Zaza kick up their heels and try to keep their “little secrets” hidden.
The debonair and charming Georges presides over the nightclub as producer, emcee, and life partner to Zaza, known offstage as Albin. A couple for more than 20 years, Albin and George hearken back to great couples of the stage and screen; I thought of Lucy and Ricky, for example – the scatterbrained and overly dramatic Albin, and the long-suffering, infinitely patient Georges. Unlike Lucy Ricardo, Albin doesn’t have to lobby Georges to get into the act at the nightclub, he is the act, or the centerpiece of the whole operation. But like Lucy, offstage, Albin has also been a devoted mother figure to Georges’ son Jean-Michel (from a single, heterosexual slip up years ago with a British showgirl.) Georges and Albin were clearly made for each other.
If casting is half the battle, Matthew Gardiner won the war when he found his Georges and Albin. Broadway veteran Brent Barrett brings his winning smile, devilishly handsome good-looks and magnificent singing voice to Signature for the first time as Georges. I have admired Barrett’s clear and ringing voice for years (I highly recommend the cast album of Closer Than Ever and his solo recording, “The Kander & Ebb Album”). Apparently he does not age either. That being said, his winning way with an audience and his fantastic chemistry with his Albin helped carry this production.
As his partner in life and show business, Bobby Smith embodies everything needed for Albin/Zaza. Signature audiences are not strangers to Smith’s effortless, triple threat status as an actor, singer and dancer. Now he can add drag performer par excellence to make it a quadruple assault. First of all, I believed every minute of Georges and Albin’s relationship – from petty squabbles to moments of tenderness. Oh sure, these characters are slightly heightened in their roles as the “male” and “female” counterparts to one another, but no more than Dolly Levi or Mame Dennis, two other characters known as “Jerry’s girls.”
Smith has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as Albin transforms from ugly duckling to swan in “A Little More Mascara.” All his musical and dramatic gifts shine through in both the comic scenes – when Georges and their neighbors try to butch him up for – and break your heart in the more serious moments.
Serious moments in a musical about French drag queens? In a word, “oui.” Based on a play (and subsequent film) by Jean Poiret, Harvey Fierstein crafted a book for La Cage aux Folles that is certainly long on laughs but it balances the comedy with the story of a family coming to grips with itself. Son Jean-Michel – earnestly played by Paul Scanlan – comes home to announce to Georges he is engaged to Anne Dindon – a lovely performance by Jessica Lauren Ball. The rub is she is the daughter of an arch-conservative, anti-gay crusading government official hell-bent on closing down all the nightclubs where hommes will be femmes. And M. and Mme. Dindon are coming to dinner to meet Jean-Michel’s parents. Quel horreur! The solution: tuck away more than Albin’s man parts by having him stay away so that Jean-Michel’s biological mother can visit and make everything appear normal. Not only does Albin have to fight bigotry and hatred from a right-wing fanatic, he has to fight a more personal battle within his own family.
As directed by Gardiner and performed by the skillful cast, the personal scope of La Cage is given just as much weight as the razzle-dazzle floor show, in a production that gives both the funny bone and the heartstrings a workout.
Smith, Barrett and Scanlan are ably supported by Signature favorites. Mitchell Hébert and Sherri L. Edelen do double duty as the sweet bistro owners M/M Renaud and the antagonistic Dindons. Nova Y. Payton makes her usual strong impression and shares some musical numbers with Smith as rival nightclub owner and ally Jacqueline. Michael Bunce makes the most of his appearances as Francis, the nightclub’s stage manager who also dares to date on of the Cagelles.
The Max Theatre is barely big enough to hold the effervescence and comic genius of DJ Petrosino who takes the role of Georges and Albin’s butler/maid Jacob to new heights. Perhaps slightly inspired by Hank Azaria’s turn in the same role in the non-musical film adaptation, “The Birdcage,” Petrosino, nearly floats and always twinkles as the Castilian house-boy who really just wants a shot at being in the nightclub act.
If everything else I have described does not entice you, the dangerous, dazzling, and dichotomous Cagelles are another reason to enter La Cage aux Folles. Limber and lithe, sexy and a skosh terrifying, the gentlemen who take on Les Cagelles are all winners in my book: Sam Brackley (Angelique), Darius R. Delk (Mercedes), Ethan Kasnett (Chantal), Jay Westin (Hanna), Isaiah W. Young (Bitelle), and Phil Young (Phaedra) will have you in stitches even if their body-hugging and phantasmagorical costumes seem like they don’t have any at all – stitches, that is.
La Cage aux Folles
closes July 10, 2016
Details and tickets
My hat is off to Frank Labovitz’s costume designs – everything from the tailored suits on the politician to the kaleidoscopic palette for the cabaret wardrobe fits the characters and the show perfectly.
It’s impossible to write this review and overlook the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida last Sunday, that has shocked the world. The deaths of 49 men and women at a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender nightclub during Pride Month commemorating the gay rights movement, chills the blood.
With Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics still ringing in my ears, I keep going back to “I Am What I Am,” sung with raw emotion and vocal power by Bobby Smith, an anthem from the depths of the soul.
“It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in.
My World. And it’s not a place I have to hide in.”
“I Am What I Am” has become part of the lexicon of LGBT pride. The mass shooting in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub is even more reason for men and women, no matter their sexual orientation, to stand together to build the world which Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein envisioned.
La Cage aux Folles . Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Harvey Fierstein . Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner . Featuring Bobby Smith, Brent Barrett, Jessica Lauren Bell, Michael Bunce, Sherri L. Edelen, Mitchell Hebert, Nova Y. Payton, DJ Petrosino, Paul Scanlan, Sam Brackley, Darius Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Isaiah W. Young, Phil Young, and Jay Westin . Music direction: Darius Smith . Scenic design: Lee Savage . Costume design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting design: Jason Lyons . Sound design: Lane Elms . Hair design: Anne Nesmith . Associate choreographer: Kelly Crandall D’Amboise . Production stage manager: Brandon Prendergast . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.