Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005
A while back there was a cartoon in the New Yorker entitled “The Gay Agenda” that depicted a page in a daily planner with a “to do” list that read something like this: “Walk the dog. Pick up dry cleaning. Pick Susie up from soccer practice. Buy mom’s birthday present.” The fact that gay people are just plain folks who face the same joys and challenges as any other human beings alive on this planet is the concept at the heart of La Cage aux Folles currently being given an energetic if flawed production at the Mac-Haydn.
La Cage had its genesis as a French farce by actor/playwright Jean Poiret, which opened in Paris in 1973 and was a huge hit, as was the 1978 French film version. The American musical version, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman opened on Broadway in 1983 and won six of the eight Tonys for which it was nominated, including Best Musical. A successful 2004 Broadway revival, which just closed last month, took home the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. For some reason Hollywood was the last to cash in on the popularity of this property, waiting until 1996 to release a non-musical English-language film version The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
My first encounter with La Cage was the French film version, and my reaction to it was “Why, this is just an old Neil Simon comedy in drag!” For all the cross-dressing La Cage aux Folles is at heart an old-fashioned show about a family that goes to great lengths to impress their prospective in-laws whose lifestyle is very different from theirs. How many times on how many TV sitcoms have you heard that story told? The financee’s family is richer or poorer or of a different race or nationality. In this case they have a different sexual orientation and some deep prejudices.
Georges (Michael Shiles) and Albin (Grant Golson) are a gay male couple in a long-term monogamous relationship. Together they operate a night club in Saint-Tropez called La Cage aux Folles where Georges is the MC and Albin, in drag as the one and only Zaza, is the star of the show. They are just plain folks running a business, raising a son Jean-Michel (Ryan Latour), the product of a one-night stand Georges had with a woman a quarter century earlier, dealing with their cross-dressing maid, er, butler Jacob (Jered Fournier), and trying to keep the spark alive in their relationship. Then Jean-Michel returns home from a holiday to announce that he is engaged to marry a girl named Anne (Bridget Cox), who is the daughter of a conservative politician bent on closing down all the drag clubs on the Riviera. Anne’s parents (John Saunders and Karla Shook) and are coming to stay in Saint-Tropez and meet Jean-Michel’s parents. Jean-Michel wants his biological mother, the unseen Sybil, to join them and for Albin to stay out of sight. For a while Georges agrees to this plan, but Albin is heart-broken and it is arranged that he can stay as Jean-Michel’s beloved (and straight) Uncle Albert. When Sybil doesn’t show up, Albin appears in drag claiming to be Jean-Michel’s mother. The two families head out to dinner at a chic restaurant Chez Jacqueline (Amanda Taraska plays the eponymous proprietor) where Albin is recognized as Zaza and encouraged to sing. Needless to say the truth that Jean-Michel’s parents are a gay couple comes out, but a happy ending is on the horizon nonetheless.
In addition to the domestic drama there is the glitz of the nightclub and several performances by the mysterious “Cagelles” – a mixed chorus of women and men in drag. Part of the fun is supposed to be guessing which are the men and which are the women, but in the close quarters of the Mac-Haydn it’s pretty darned obvious. The alternative fun becomes seeing which of the Mac-Haydn male chorus members make attractive women and which don’t. This is undoubtedly a matter of personal taste, but I thought that Chantal (Byron Dement), Dermah (Gavin Waters), and, from certain angles, Phaedra (Jason Paul) were the cutest. Waters certainly had the best legs. Dement also displayed a lovely counter-tenor voice, soaring effortlessly to the high reaches of his range without slipping in to falsetto. In and out of drag Waters gets to show off his expert dancing and gymnastic talents.
The heart and soul of this show is the relationship between Georges and Albin, which is one of the most romantic and sentimental depicted on the musical stage in a long time. Georges is the straight man (pun fully intended) and Albin is the flamboyant comic relief. The actor who plays Albin needs to be able to play a very effeminate man, a very sexy drag queen, and a very believable middle-class matron. That requires tremendous range. Grant Golson doesn’t quite have it, and this is the major flaw in this production. Golson does not have the glamour and chutzpah to be believable as Zaza, and he also has a very bad wig which doesn’t help. This means that for most of the first act his performance is weak, which is a tremendous pity because later on he gets to do what he is good at and the show really hits its stride.
What Golson plays well are the scenes where Albin is being the caring spouse and parent. I absolutely believed that he and Shiles were an old married couple, very much in love but also fully aware of each other’s failings and foibles. Shiles is a handsome and competent performer who can always be counted on to deliver a professional and likeable characterization. He and Golson make a handsome couple. I was really disappointed that they didn’t get to kiss at the end. Maybe the script doesn’t call for it, or maybe director Joseph Patton decided that the Mac-Haydn audience wasn’t ready for a single-sex kiss, but I know that everything that led up to that last moment prepared me for a big old smoochy ending. Oh well, they hugged nicely.
Fournier is a riot as the over-the-top Jacob. His turkey tragedy, his luggage dropping, and his wild excitement when he finally gets to put on a dress and appear on stage at La Cage aux Folles are all priceless.
The straight people are played very, very straight indeed. Jean-Michel and Anne are portrayed as such white-bread starry-eyed juveniles that its nauseating. Latour and Cox look the roles to a T, and it is neither their fault nor Patton’s that their characters are so bland and boring. As Anne’s parents, M. et Mme. Dindon, Saunders and Shook get to pull out all the stops with broadly farcical performances. They are both pros, and they made me laugh, but my companion found them overblown and annoying. This just goes to prove that theatre criticism is an inexact science.
The show has been choreographed by Rusty Curcio, who has danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a men’s drag corps de ballet. He is obviously an expert in teaching men how to dance in high heels and pantyhose, and it shows. The dancing is exuberantly athletic and entertaining particularly, in the can-can number contained within the show’s title song. Felix Hess does a stellar turn on the Lyra Hoop with special training and equipment provided by Bobby Hedglin-Taylor, and Anthony Guerrero as Hanna the dominatrix has a specialty tango with two sensuous faux felines. Hanna wields a wicked whip and I must say the sound and sight of a big whip being cracked in the Mac-Haydn is quite something. You will be glad to hear that Guerrero has had whip training from Steve Smith, so no one on stage or off gets injured.
Cathleen Perry has come up with some snazzy costumes, but I did think that Golson was hindered by slightly dowdy gowns and the aforementioned dreadful red wig as Zaza. As Albin sings in the number Mascara: “Cause when I feel glamorous, elegant, beautiful, The world that I’m looking at’s beautiful too!” Make Golson more glamorous and he will feel and act more glamorous and maybe the first act of this show will pick up some steam.
The French word folle is related to the English words fool and folly. It is a slang French term for a flamboyant homosexual male, but a more accurate translation of the title would be Cage of Lunatics. Probably the best parallel in English would be Ship of Fools. If you are a person who is offended by depictions of gay people living their lives in the open, or by the sight of men in drag, this is probably not the show for you, but take a cue from the title and remember that this is not meant to be taken too seriously!
La Cage aux Folles runs through August 7 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours and ten minutes with one intermission. This is a fun and family-oriented show. I would certainly take children 8 and over – there were some enjoying the performance that I attended – but each family needs to use their own judgment based on their own values. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005