Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2006
Fabulous! Wonderful! Excellent! Go!
That was an easy review to write. But I will elaborate, for my own enjoyment in reliving the fun as well as to encourage you to do the only sensible thing and buy tickets NOW!
I was under the impression that I had seen La Cage Aux Folles. I was sadly mistaken. What is on stage now at the Cohoes Music Hall is the real thing – big, gaudy, bawdy, silly, romantic, and absolutely irresistible. From the moment Les Cagelles (the chorus whose genders remain intentionally mysterious) were revealed wearing (apparently) nothing more than their faux fur wraps, I knew that director/choreographer Tralen Doler was not playing it safe – a good plan since the plot of La Cage…. is actually about as old-fashioned as they come, it’s the setting that is out of the ordinary.
This story, in many versions and in many languages, has been around for decades. This is the Tony award-winning American musical version, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, which first opened on Broadway in 1983. It is a big old-fashioned musical about a couple trying hard, and failing, to impress their son’s fiancée’s family whose values and lifestyle are very different from theirs. Herman’s music, while tuneful, is also repetitive and predictable. One of the reasons you come out of the theatre humming is that five of the nine unique songs (a very small score for a major musical) are sung over and over and over…
So what makes this show so special? Well the couple in question is a gay male couple, Georges (Jerry Christakos) and Albin (Jim Charles), who run a notorious St. Tropez drag club called La Cage Aux Folles*. Albin is also the club’s headliner, the one and only Zaza, drag queen extraordinaire. Their apartment abuts the club and the lunacy of the theatre world, heightened by the off-stage antics of Les Cagelles often spills over into their private lives. Their butler, Jacob (Kristen Griffith), wants to be the maid, will do ANYTHING to get into show business. Trust me, Jacob’s histrionics make Lucy Ricardo look boring!
But aside from all that they are pretty much like any long-married couple, and when Georges’ son Jean-Michel (Nicholas Dávila) arrives to announce that he is engaged…to a woman (Tiffany Peters)…whose father (John Noble) is the French equivalent of Pat Robertson, they wring their hands and wonder where they went wrong in his upbringing. An attempt to pass themselves off as a “normal” family results in hilarious disaster. There is, of course, a happy ending, punctuated by many exuberant and bawdy dance numbers from Les Cagelles.
The key to the success of any production of La Cage… is the actor playing Albin/Zaza, a fully rounded character for all of his ridiculousness. Albin is loving wife to Georges, mother to Jean-Michel, AND Queen of La Cage Aux Folles. The actor in this role needs to be able to play the broad drag queen as well as the real man. (And yes, for all his pantyhose and mascara, Albin is a real man in every sense of that word.) And Jim Charles is absolutely fabulous. He completely inhabits this flamboyant character who is simultaneously strong as an ox and ditsy as a kitten and makes him real and loveable and wildly entertaining.
He is nicely matched by Christakos, who plays Georges, the “plain homosexual,” with style and aplomb. In real life Christakos has a drag act that he performs with Cohoes casting director Kelly Briggs, but here he plays it straight, so to speak, and leaves the flamboyance to Charles.
Griffith nearly steals the show as Jacob, until late in the second act when Doler unwisely allows him/her to over-act to the point where all the fun is wrung out of the character. I refer to Griffith as both him and her because, frankly, by the end of the evening I could not decide with s/he was actually male or female. Early on, when s/he was playing a man in drag, I was quite convinced s/he was male. Later, when s/he was playing it straighter, I became convinced s/he was female. His/her program bio seemed to indicate s/he was male, but not very men are named Kristen, not that they can’t be… But frankly that kind of gender confusion is right in keeping with this show and I enjoyed the puzzle it all presented.
Dávila and Peters have the very straight straight parts. Dávila does a nice job with his solo numbers, although a slightly shorter haircut would have made him look a little less androgynous, and Peters looks convincingly virginal, whatever that means.
I always get a kick out of seeing John Noble and Carol Charniga, here cast as Peter’s uptight parents. They both get right into the spirit of things in the end, with fun and surprising turns on the runway at La Cage.
I will not name Les Cagelles because that would reveal their carefully disguised genders, but they are all beautiful and marvelous dancers. Those who have the star turns as Chantal, Hannah, and Phaedra do a nice job with them, and whoever the fellow is who dances en pointe – bravo (brava?)
Charles makes a beautiful broad, and he is amply assisted in this transformation by Costume Designer Whitney Locher, her assistant Khryn Diotte, and the army of volunteers who helped build Charles’ fabulous gowns, Les Cagelles’ daring ensembles, and all the other spiffy duds and wigs on display in this spectacle. Griffith is also outrageously costumed and bewigged.
Doler’s choreography is as much the star of this show as Charles is. Each production number is bigger, naughtier, and more colorful than the one before. It is astounding that Les Cagelles are still in one piece, especially after that frenetic and hilarious Can-Can number. Down in the pit Nathan Perry leads a large and effective orchestra whose rhythms keep those feet flying.
Jason Bolen has done his best with the sets, which need to be fairly minimal in order to fit all those dancing bodies on the stage. I would also bet that, when the dollars were divvied up, the costume budget got more than the sets. I liked the runway that wrapped around the orchestra, and all those neophyte high-heel wearers did an excellent job of teetering up and down it small slopes without breaking their ankles. The set representing Georges and Albin’s home was also nicely executed with a creative use of minimal space.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: There is no show the more staunchly upholds traditional family values than La Cage…. It is about love and marriage and commitment – healthy commitment in which partners respect each other’s differences. It is a very romantic show. In my review of the Mac-Haydn production last summer I had a big fuss because Georges and Albin didn’t kiss at the end. As I walked in to Cohoes I explained to my “date” that more than anything I wanted a big ol’ smoochy ending, and, while I didn’t quite get that, I did get a warm hug and a little peck, which made me considerably happier than sincere handshake and a slap on the back would have.
The top ticket price at the Cohoes Music Hall is $28! The last time I took in a big Brodway musical it cost me $400 for tickets, transportation, meals, etc. for two. Not to mention at least eight hours of travel. A trip to see a show in Cohoes, from my home in Williamstown, MA, costs less than a quarter of that. So the sets aren’t quite up to Broadway standard, everything else is, and the atmosphere is so much more homey. The Music Hall is precisely the right size – neither too intimate nor too enormous – which allows the actors perform without mikes (HOORAY!), and Charles, a Cohoes native, and Tony Rivera run the place as a home-town theatre. This is a theatre that knows how important the community is to their success, and how to make themselves an integral part of it.
La Cage Aux Folles, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through May 21 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
*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. copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006