"La Cage aux Folles" -- No Surprises but a Lot of Fun
By Geary Danihy
One thing you can count on is that Goodspeed Musicals knows how to produce a musical. Another thing you can count on is that director Rob Ruggiero knows how to stage a musical. Thus, it’s almost a sure bet that, by and large, you will enjoy La Cage aux Folles, which recently opened at the Goodspeed Opera House. You may come away a little less than satisfied, but that has more to do with the structure of the musical, written by Harvey Fierstein, with music by Jerry Herman, than it does with the current production.
Based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 film, the musical opened on Broadway in 1983 and garnered nine Tony nominations. It has enjoyed several revivals, again receiving Tony honors, and is often produced in regional theaters. The plot revolves around the owners of “La Cage,” a St. Tropez nightclub that features transvestite dancers dubbed the Cagelles. At the cabaret, a long-time couple, Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) runs the business, while Albin (Jamison Stern), as Zaza, is the fading, somewhat hyper-sensitive star of the show.
Complications arise for the couple when Georges son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan), the result of a one-night stand Georges had many years ago with a show girl, returns home to announce that he is going to get married to Anne (Kristen Martin), the daughter of Marie (Stacey Scotte) and Edouard Dindon (Mark Zimmerman), who are on their way for a visit to meet Jean-Michel’s family. The major stumbling block is that Dindon is the leader of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” an organization that does not take too kindly to the “La Cage” lifestyle. Jean-Michel pleads that, for at least 24 hours, his “family,” which includes Jacob (Cedric Leiba, Jr.), a very eccentric maid/butler, become more “traditional.”
Georges can pull it off, but Zaza is, well, Zaza, so Georges and Jean-Michel initially ask Albin not to be present, but after Albin pulls a hissy fit, Georges relents and suggests that Albin transform himself into Uncle Albert. The ensuing transformation and visit by the Dindon’s turns into a controlled farce, with tables and genders being turned and everything working out for the best in the end.
The problem, if there is one, is that all of this rushes towards a whisper (and a kiss) rather than a bang. Over the evening, there are numerous “wow-the-crowd” numbers, interspersed with more intimate ballads, and this stellar cast ably performs both. If La Cage ended with the much-anticipated and wonderfully rendered “I Am What I Am” number, which closes the first act, there would be emotional closure of sorts, or if it ended with “The Best of Times,” it would leave the audience exiting on an emotional high, but it doesn’t do either, and, as written, it can’t, so we go into the second act, which has its moments but then devolves, at least in this production (and many others), into a rather confusing visual pastiche that is less of a resolve than an attempt to wrap it all up in a neat little package.
That being said, you can’t deny that this “La Cage” delivers exactly what the show is meant to deliver: camp, comedy and sentimentality. There are no surprises (for those who have seen the show before) but many delights. Right from the initial reveal of the Cagelles in “We Are What We Are,” you know you are in good hands. Stern’s transformation in “A Little More Mascara” can’t help but elicit enthusiastic applause, and his paean to self-actualization, “I Am What I Am” is flawless. Then there is the second act’s “Masculinity” number, and again, with Reynolds as straight man, Stern has a field day as a gay man trying to adopt the persona of John Wayne. Lieba, Jr. is delightfully over-the-top, as his character demands, Martin is lithe and lovely as Anne, Sue Mathys is expressively “French” as Jacqueline, a local bistro owner, and Ryan is eager and earnest as Jean-Michel. For the price of a ticket, you really can’t ask for more.
As good as Ruggiero is, however, as director he hasn’t been able to figure out how to successfully stage the musical’s helter-skelter penultimate scene or the show’s resolution, to focus the audience’s eyes on what is important (perhaps only the medium of film can do this successfully). There are just too many perspectives to consider and too much going on. The fault, mainly, lies in the book, and you have to work with what you’ve got, but one can only wonder what might have been if Ruggiero had said, “What if…?” and acted on the answers that came to his very creative and theater-savvy mind.
La Cage aux Folles has been extended through Sept, 10. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.