On Stage: La Cage aux Folles

by Chuck Conconi

Signature Theatre’s production of the award-winning musical is a fresh take on the gender-bending love story.

la cage aux folles

Ethan Kasnett (Chantal) in La Cage Aux Folles now playing at Signature Theatre through July 10, 2016. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Signature Theatre’s superb “La Cage aux Folles” proves once again the company’s ability to take a great hit musical that opened on Broadway 33 years ago, and to showcase the touching gay love story with the sensitivity it deserves. Even for someone who has seen it before, this production feels relevant and fresh.

La Cage is set in a St. Tropez drag nightclub in a book written by Harvey Fierstein, with the lush music and lyrics of Jerry Herman. It quickly became a hit, receiving nine Tony Award nominations and winning six, including Best Musical Score, Best Book and Best Musical.

Signature’s Max Theatre has been turned into the French night club, with a stage setting designed by Lee Savage to be appropriately garish and colorful. As the musical opens the female impersonators – Les Cagelles – are in dressing rooms off to the side applying the makeup that will transform them in beautiful dancing girls for the opening number, the almost plaintive, “We Are What We Are.”

The owner and emcee of the St. Tropez drag club is Georges, Brent Barrett in a Robert Goulet moustache. He lives above the club with his partner of 20 years, Albin, the incomparable Bobby Smith, who is also the night spot’s star drag queen, Zaza. Barrett is a perfect choice for the more steady Georges. He has a big voice and a presence that contrasts humorously with the inspired casting of Smith as the petulant, flighty Albin. Smith has a perfect voice for this role and when he is in full drag singing “A Little More Mascara” as he makes his transformation into a lady with a striking resemblance to Marlena Dietrich.

"La Cage aux Folles" is now playing at Signature Theatre through July 10, 2016. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

“La Cage aux Folles” is now playing at Signature Theatre through July 10, 2016. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Smith is a unique talented performer often seen in Signature productions and is a standout in supporting roles as well as roles like this where he is the star.

Georges has a son, Jean-Michel, the product of a one-night stand, who comes home to announce he is going to marry Anne Dindon (Jessica Lauren Ball), the daughter of the “Traditional Family and Morality Party” leader whose goal is to close down all the drag clubs. Jean-Michel then adds that Anna and her parents are coming to meet his family and Jean-Michel asks that the flamboyant Albin not be present.

Paul Scanlin, as Jean-Michel, has a complicated and thankless role in the production. Albin has been the only mother he has ever known. Albin loves him and he loves her, but Anne is so important that he ignores how hurt she will be not to be included. He has even lied that his father is a diplomat. Albin’s pain of rejection is evident when Smith closes the first act singing, “I Am What I Am.”

The rest of “La Cage aux Folles” is a madcap, guaranteed to fail, attempt to redecorate the apartment and to get Jacob, the butler/maid to tone down his excessive feminine antics when the Dindon family comes for dinner. D.J. Petrosino’s Jacob is delightfully slapstick and he desperately wants to be a drag performer in the club downstairs.

“La Cage aux Folles” is, subject aside, a traditional Broadway musical – it is all about entertainment, the book, the music and lyrics – that under Matthew Gardiner’s respectful direction and choreography is a wonderfully poignant and totally entertaining evening. It is especially ironic that the Signature production opened on Gay Pride weekend, also the weekend of the Orlando, Florida gay nightclub massacre. How could anyone be offended by people who “Are What they Are.”

Of special recognition is Les Cagelles – Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isaiah W. Young, and Phil Young – the club’s drag chorus wearing the wildly colorful costumes designed by Frank Labovitz, wearing wigs designed by Anne Nesmith and makeup designed by Andrea Hopfer, singing and dancing exuberantly under the musical direction of Darius Smith.

Once again Signature Theatre deserves the reputation it has in brilliantly staging musicals whether it is Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, or Feinstein and Herman. “Les Cage aux Folles” is a sensitive love story and it is difficult to not be tearful with the show’s anthem, “The Best of Times” is now.

“La Cage aux Folles” runs through July 10 at Signature Theatre. 

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