La Cage aux Folles

By David A. Rosenberg

Call it a would-be mini-scandal.¬†When composer/lyricist Jerry Herman accepted his 1984 Tony Award for “La Cage aux Folles,” now in a bejeweled, dynamic revival at Goodspeed, he told the crowd, ”There’s been a rumor around that the simple, hummable show tune was no longer welcome on Broadway.” As proof of the opposite, he of course offered his own show.

Since “La Cage” was in a close Tony contest with “Sunday in the Park With George,” the remark was taken as a put-down of that brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical with its less-than-hummable, certainly not as popular, score. (”Sunday,” not incidentally, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Drama just months before the Tonys.)

Clarifications followed. What Herman meant, his supporters insisted, was not a criticism of Sondheim. Rather, he was exulting in having his biggest critical and popular success since “Hello Dolly” and “Mame,” after several flops since those tuners. Winning for his score and having ”La Cage” snag the Best Musical accolade was payback for years of neglect.

“La Cage” opened in 1983, running four years on Broadway (1761 performances). It was Herman’s last solo book musical. Often revived, the show’s popularity remains strong, sparking enthusiastic audience reaction, as it does at Goodspeed.

And why not? Not only funny and touching, “La Cage” boasts a terrific score: the rousing “We Are What We Are,” the plaintive “Song on the Sand,” the touching “Look Over There,” the uplifting “The Best of Times,” the jaunty “With Anne on my Arm,” not to mention “I Am What I Am,” which has become the unofficial anthem of the gay movement. (“My world, that I want to have a little pride in / My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.”)

Based on Jean Poiret’s French play (but not the smash French film), the title translates as "the cage of mad women," here referring to the chorus of “Cagelles.” (A Hollywood film version was titled “The Birdcage.”)

However “folles” is also a slang term for effeminate homosexuals. Although not ignored, sex is played down in the show, a conscious decision by its creators (Herman, librettist Harvey Fierstein and original director Arthur Laurents). The emphasis was to appeal to a wide audience, not to be preaching about acceptance. Rather, the emphasis would be on family and love, filtered through an outright musical comedy. Thus, despite the show’s declaring at the outset that the evening will be “notorious and dangerous,” it is only moderately daring with occasional sarcasms like, “In the minds of the masses, a lush is more acceptable than a fruit.”

In fact, Goodspeed’s superb director, Rob Ruggiero, opts for keeping the sexual identity of the Cagelles (seven male, one female) a mystery by not having them remove wigs at the end of their opening number. This not only belies their singing about wearing “girdles and jocks” and declaring they’re an “illusion,” it also undercuts a moment of revelation near the end.

Georges and Albin are a long-time couple: the former is also proprietor of a nightclub featuring transvestite entertainers, headed by the aging, petulant Albin whose stage name is Zaza.

The real world intrudes when Jean-Michel, Georges’ 24-year-old son by a long-ago “indiscretion,” is engaged to Anne, daughter of a fire-breathing bigot, Edouard Dindon (“dindon” is French for “turkey”). As head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, Dindon’s idea of “family values” excludes gay coupling.

To insure a smooth ride with his future in-laws, Jean-Michel pleads with Albin not to show his face. After all, this is an era when even the flamboyant Albin pulls his hand away from the affectionate Georges. (“Please, we’re in public view.”)

The moment is delicately handled by director Ruggiero who similarly brought his compassionate, humane touch to Goodspeed’s recent “Fiddler on the Roof” and “1776,” even to the lumbering “Camelot.” Balancing laughter and tears, Ruggiero gives “La Cage” a sweet nature, nowhere more apparent than in the loving relationship between Albin (a yearning Jamison Stern) and Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds, investing the character with understanding, maturity and sincerity).

Mark Zimmerman (looking a lot like Dick Cheney) and Stacey Scotte shine as Mr. and Mrs. Dindon. Conor Ryan is warm as the conflicted Jean-Michel; as Anne, Kristen Martin avoids the ingenue stereotype. Stereotyping, however, doesn’t escape Cedric Leiba, Jr.’s Jacob, Georges and Albin’s maid / butler.

Ralph Perkins’ choreography is precise but doesn’t pop, while Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design is paltry. Michael McDonald’s costumes are a continuous delight, abounding in spangles and sequins, glitz and glitter. The same may be said about this revival. And oh boy is it hummable.

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CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE