Out of the Cage -- a Review of "La Cage aux Folles"

By Brooks Appelbaum

First presented on Broadway in 1983, La Cage Aux Folles had something to prove: that a farcical musical comedy focusing on a pair of long-term homosexual lovers and an exotic nightclub in St. Tropez could find a mainstream audience. This production is famous for its brave groundbreaking, and also somewhat scorned, especially as times goes by, for its extreme glitz and glamour.

The show’s most recent Broadway revival, in 2010, was scaled down in every respect, sympathetically exposing the characters’ illusions about themselves and emphasizing the tenderness and heart that Harvey Fierstein (book) and especially the incomparable Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) had always set at the center of the piece.

Rob Ruggiero, directing La Cage Aux Folles at Goodspeed Opera House, creates a production filled with warmth and love that is also visually glorious. However, rather than exposing illusions, this production subtly examines and often celebrates the masks we all wear, showing not only how well “a little more mascara” (choose your analogy here) can help smarten up our sagging self-esteem, but also how some “sparkle dust” lifts life from the mundane and quotidian into the realm of marvelous fun. And marvelous fun, along with a few teardrops, is exactly what Ruggiero’s production provides.

La Cage Aux Folles is both the show’s name and the name of the nightclub Goodspeed audience members enter for an evening of outrageous entertainment. Onstage, the “Notorious Cagelles” (Darius Barnes, Michael Bullard, Alexander Cruz, Erin M. Kernion, Alex Ringler, Nick Silverio, and Nic Thompson -- all remarkable) introduce us to the gender-bending pleasures ahead (“We Are What We Are”), while backstage a domestic drama unfolds between the suave and deeply sentimental Georges (a marvelous James Lloyd Reynolds) and Albin (a remarkable Jamison Stern), for twenty years a devoted couple.

Albin’s fears of middle age collide with a scenario that puts a twist on the plot of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. George’s son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan), born of a long-ago experimental fling with a chorus girl, announces plans to marry his beloved Anne (the lovely Kristen Martin): a cause for rejoicing, were Anne’s politician father not spearheading the “Tradition, Family, and Morality Party.” How to transform their most unconventional family into a conventional one for the parental visit? And what, most importantly, can be done with the defiantly flamboyant Albin?

Multiple schemes tumble over themselves, shifting this story from the familiar to the comically surprising and sweetly poignant. As directed by Ruggiero, no matter how farcical the action, we never lose sight of this production’s controlling idea. Masks serve each of the main characters, especially Albin. Though a man, Albin is never so warmly commanding and at ease as when he can play the role of a woman, whether that woman is the onstage diva, Zaza; Georges’ female-identified love; or Jean-Michel’s affectionate mother, having raised the boy with Georges since Jean-Michel was a baby. Stern plays all these facets with spectacular moxie (as Zaza) and moving conviction.

Georges, too, needs his masks, some of them enjoyable to wear and others necessary. As MC, he plays it mainly straight, having fun with his audience and taking pleasure in his prowess, but mainly letting the Cagelles and Zaza shine as the nightclub’s stars. When complications ensue with Anne’s parents, he must adopt some less pleasant guises. As James Lloyd Reynolds makes touchingly clear, Georges is most himself as a proud father and when he is able to express his tender love for Albin, especially in the touching “Song on the Seine.”

Jean-Michel’s mask serves him differently from that of either Georges or Albin, and Conor Ryan creates a complex character. At first sight, it’s difficult to believe that his Jean-Michel has anything to do with George or Albin: wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt, he looks like a tall, tousled, cheerful jock -- as ordinary as they come. Later on, though, we understand the reasons for this persona, and we sympathize.

Albin’s maid/butler, Jacob (Cedric Leiba, Jr.), nearly steals the show (quite a feat, with this cast), though at times Leiba’s outrageousness becomes just slightly too much. Still, Jacob is intended to embody the most broadly farcical type in the household, wearing a new costume and a new persona each time he walks into a room. His theatrical creations bring “sparkle dust” to a job that doesn’t fulfill his real dream: to join the Cagelles and rise from handmaiden to star.

In addition to Ruggiero’s strong work with the domestic comedy, Ralph Perkins’ stunning choreography -- aided by glorious costumes by Michael McDonald and a flexible scenic design by Michael Schweikardt -- creates numbers for “The Notorious Cagelles” that nearly surpass everything I have seen on the Goodspeed stage (or anywhere, for that matter). Each is a tour de force.

Most insightfully, too, Ruggiero has used some of these numbers -- and especially the famous cage dance -- to darken the production. We have become inured to the trope of the fun and funny transvestite with the heart of gold (Kinky Boots is a prime example). In key places, a precise, stone-faced manner and some aggressive dance moves remind us that, though La Cage Aux Folles is certainly a comedy, Georges, Jean-Michel, and especially Albin must escape various cages before they prevail.

Musically, this production burnishes Herman’s marvelous score, with uniformly strong voices and a terrific orchestra, led by Michael O’Flaherty.

This version of La Cage Aux Folles is not to be missed. If you have seen the play before, you’ll discover here unexpected depth along with pitch-perfect comedy. If you have never seen it, you couldn’t start with a more fully realized show. 

“La Cage Aux Folles” runs through September 6. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.

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