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by Michael L. Quintos
It's interesting to note that the original Tony-winning Broadway production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES—whose now second revival is currently in residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through August 5—debuted—sacré bleu!—almost 30 years ago!But despite the passage of time, the initially groundbreaking musical comedy's emotional and political impact as well as its real-life implications in today's climate have not lessened in its relatability as much as one would think, particularly because heated debates explored in the show still continue to rage to this day from opposing sides.
The timing of its feather-boa'd arrival in the more conservative Orange County (which immediately followed a two-week engagement at the Pantages Theatre) is actually quite fortuitous. Aside from the on-going chatter that's to be expected from an election year, its local debut earlier this week comes on the unflattering heels of a controversy sparked by the remarks of a major restaurant chain figurehead that doesn't exactly flatter the likes of the show's central characters.
But real-life political parallels notwithstanding, how is the national tour revival itself?
As presented in its current iteration, the show, for the most part, remains a genuinely entertaining enterprise—a cheeky farce filled with super silly situations, wildly outrageous characters, a witty book by Harvey Fierstein, and a memorable Jerry Herman score that will sear into you long after the curtain falls. Now revived in an era of post-Will & Grace/Modern Family/Glee histrionics, this musical comedy's origins seem downright revolutionary when you think about the time in history when this show first existed. Of course, its roots are even earlier: the musical is based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret.
In the middle of Saint-Tropez, drag nightclub owner Georges (played by infamously tanned George Hamilton) is facing a dilemma: he has just learned that his grown son Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney) is engaged to be married to a lovely girl Anne Dindon (Allison Blair McDowell)—who just happens to be the daughter of the head of the "Tradition, Family, and Morality Party." Understandably, Jean-Michel doesn't feel that the lifestyle practiced by his father and his "surrogate mom," Georges' longtime partner Albin (the jawdroppingly good Christopher Sieber) will likely be accepted by his future in-laws too well.
So, the young man—taking advantage of his parents' unconditional love for him—devises a plan to somehow shield the visiting Dindons from his parents' true flamboyant selves. As expected, Albin—whose alter ego is the superstar drag attraction ZaZa at his partner's club La Cage Aux Folles—doesn't like this idea one bit. And, naturally, hilarious high-jinks and sight gags explode like a glitter bomb when all things don't go exactly as planned.
As entertaining as it is, alas, something is a bit off in this otherwise fun-filled parade. Don't get me wrong. Laughs are still a-plenty in this production and the songs are just as lovely as ever. The story, of course, remains wonderfully familiar to many who've seen the similarly-titled 1978 movie version, or the superb Mike Nichols-directed 1996 American celluloid remake The Birdcage, or even countless other sitcoms and movies that have featured a plot dealing with a pre-nuptial meeting of culture-clashing in-laws. And, most importantly, the show has the extraordinary Christopher Sieber—who, alone, makes this show worth seeing.
But the show is far from perfect. Perhaps a victim of necessity in these less-extravagant times, this touring version of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES feels a bit, well, less extravagant. Dare I say it's less glitzy than I had hoped it would be. You know a show may be a bit in trouble when they feel the need to have a pre-show warm-up drag queen comic lobbing jokes before the show even starts (although, in hindsight, I actually liked this bit, only because it made for an unexpectedly spicy start). And you definitely know a show is in desperate need to fill in the gaps when beach balls are thrown into the audience (I, along with several patrons hated this bit. A lot). Seriously? Beach balls? I feel so awful for the older ladies who got smacked hard on the face with these things. Oy.
As fun as this show is in the grand scheme of things, part of this version's iffy-ness may be because the show appears to have been downgraded on many aspects: it features only six "Cagelles"—those hard-working, glamourous faux-gals that leap and plié with the greatest of ease—diminishing the show's wow factor. It also uses much more simplified sets—which banishes its band on raised "balconies" on opposite sides of the stage—that feel like they were repurposed from a shuttered South Beach hotel. And for a show that wants to celebrate the glittery allure of uninhibited self-expression, the show's palette is a bit middle-of-the-road in its color, and vibrancy. (In this case, when the story calls for our protagonists to "tone down" the overt homosexuality of their surroundings, they didn't really have to change that much).
In an effort to probably distract focus from its less-opulent machinations, a big name star has been brought in to fill in one of the lead roles. Actually, herein lies the show's biggest weakness. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of stunt-casting, especially if it means shutting out a more talented, albeit, less-known actor in favor of hiring a marquee name for a role.
For LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, that role went to George Hamilton. Unfortunately, as palpable as his larger-than-life charm may be, his performance—both as an actor and, especially, as a singer—just isn't up to par with his much more musically-inclined co-stars. It's a nice try, but it reminds me of what it must be like seeing your beloved, retired grandpa volunteering for a role at the local dinner theater. It's adorable, sure—but also a little awkward.
Luckily for the show, the rest of the cast makes this touring show worth the price of a ticket. The six individual Cagelles—Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter, Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell, and Trevor Downey—are all exceptional, particularly in the numbers that feature their interpretation of choreographer Lynne Page's dances. As George's son from a confused, drunken night, Lowney surprises in the role of Jean-Michel with a sweet, really beautiful voice, especially while crooning "With Anne On My Arm." It's a nice pairing with the lovely McDowell, who plays his fiancée Anne.
Other standouts include Gay Marshall as pint-size fame-a-holic restauranteur Jacqueline, who's a complete hoot. Both playing dual roles as beachside café owners The Renuads and Anne's parents The Dindons, Bernard Burak Sheredy and Cathy Newman are equally beguiling (in the former) as they are wickedly gruff (in the latter). And as the over-the-top
assitant/houseboy/maid Jacob, Jeigh Madjus often steals the show with every thick Filipino-accented, über-flamboyant appearance.
And lastly, carrying the show on his very broad shoulders—and magically enhanced bosoms—Sieber is, without a doubt, the real star and ultimate draw of this production. A gargantuan force of sheer, mesmerizing talent—backed by a slew of high-profile, Tony-nominated Broadway roles to his name—Sieber, as Albin, is unquestionably the show's best asset, and by far the main reason not to miss this musical at all. Equally riveting to watch in both highly-comical moments and quietly vulnerable ones, Sieber—who once played the more straight-laced Georges opposite Tony winner Fierstein— embodies the role with gravitas, pathos, plenty of tongue-in-cheek hilarity, and, of course, heart. He elevates everything around him, and his tour-de-force vocals on "I Am What I Am" is not to be missed.
So is it worth seeing this new revival worth seeing? Absolutely! Did I mention it has Christopher Sieber?
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Paul Kolnik. From top: Albin as Zaza (Christopher Sieber) sings "I Am What I Am," Albin and Georges (George Hamilton) share a duet, the Cagelles give new meaning to tweeting.
Performances of the National Tour Production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 5. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org
The show moves south to San Diego August 7 - 12. For additional information on LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, visit www.LaCage.com.