LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at Broad Brook Opera House ruffles feathers
I’ll admit it. I’d never seen La Cage Aux Folles. The musical looms large in the gay community, particularly as it was written by of its two giants -- Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1983 and both of its returns to Broadway snatched the Best Revival Awards, so it can justly lay claim to being a classic. So, why was I weirded out seeing the show?
This question is separate from the pros and cons of the current Opera House Players production running through May 20 at the Broad Brook Opera House. On the one hand, La Cage Aux Folles can be seen as a throwback to the non-ironic book musical that is stuffed to the gills with lovely songs, the type of show one would expect from the composer of Hello, Dolly and Mame. On the other hand, it can be seen as a political statement promoting the validity of homosexual marriage and parenting.
On another hand, it can be seen as confusing transgendered people with gay people (not always the same thing as I know heterosexual transfolk) and vice versa. Sexuality and gender are not the same thing. And on one final hand (I’m starting to resemble a Hindu god here), La Cage Aux Folles indulges in a number of stereotypes that subvert its political intent. A boa tossed into the midst of the drag performers results into an eye-scratching melee.
So what to make of La Cage? Maybe you should do what most everyone in the audience was doing Saturday night at the Broad Brook Opera House -- enjoy the show and not think too much about it. There is much to distract you onstage. A great place to start is the eye-popping costumes, far and away the most opulent I have ever seen on a community theatre stage. The set, designed by the production’s director, Sharon Fitzhenry helps transition the viewer from onstage at a Saint Tropez boit de nuit to backstage to next door to the street (although the set could use a little more of the costume’s fabulosity -- if we’re indulging in stereotypes).
The two leads -- Chad Shipley as the cabaret emcee/husband Georges and Luis Manzi as his trusty star/wife Albin -- are both solid and provide many affecting moments. Manzi knocks Albin/Zaza’s “I Am What I Am” out of the park, while Shipley tenderly renders the ballad “Song on the Sand” to his lover. The production, despite its pro-gay love stance, denies the gay couple a kiss while the straight couple gets a straight-up lip-lock. Other standout performances include Mindy Meeker as Suzette, the brash restaurant owner who could teach some of La Cage’s Cagelles a thing or two about how to steal focus, and Keith Leonhardt, who is funny, but a little de trop as Jacob, the couple’s houseboy. As the not-subtly-named Monsieur Dindon (translation = Mr. Turkey), Jonathan Trecker channels his inner George W. Bush effectively.
The showstopping Cagelles, the can-can boys who contribute much of the pizzazz of the show, are fun with flashy choreography by Kristen Shaw. Unfortunately, by casting some of the Cagelles with women playing men playing women, the subversive nature of this particular chorus line is somewhat lost. Lisa Abate, as the riding-crop wielding S&M performer Hanna, is clearly excited to be onstage and fun to watch, but needs to channel her fearsome inner dominatrix. Giovannie Mendez is a ripped and uproarious Phaedra, while Pierce Stone returns to the scene of his last transgendered escapade in Chicago, to play the humorous songbird Chantal.
The show was plagued with sound snafus, particularly as some actors are amplified and others are not. Hopefully these issues will be worked out as the run continues. Overall, Broad Brook’s La Cage Aux Folles is fun and diversionary. At a time when gay marriage is an election issue, it is nice to have a reminder that at the heart of the sturm und drang, the issue really boils down to love and let love.