La Cage aux Folles is a weirdly resonant story, and that is not just my opinion. It began life as a French play, got reworked as a now-classic French-Italian film, was turned into a Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical that proceeded to win just about every Tony ever invented, and then received a Hollywood face lift to emerge as The Birdcage, starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. Obviously, this is a story with legs. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to make it work onstage: You just need to have faith that classics become classics for a reason, and try to keep your interpretation as servile to the material as possible.
This is what the Actor's Playhouse has done, and though their production is not across-the-board successful, we should still be grateful for the affection, yea, reverence, with which they treat Fierstein's book and, to a lesser extent, Herman's last great score.
La Cage is the story and I know you know this, and I want to make it clear that I know that you know, and that I'm only including this information because I would be derelict in my duties if I didn't make sure to cover all the same bases that have been endlessly trod upon by AP hacks since the birth of the wire La Cage is the story of a couple of aging queens named George and Albin who run a drag club in St. Tropez, France. In the club, named "La Cage aux Folles," George acts as MC and Albin, in full space-alien drag raiment, is the club's star singing attraction. George has a son by the name of Jean-Michel, a result of a one-night flirtation with heterosexuality some 25 years prior. Since the boy's birth, the preternaturally effeminate Albin has acted as his mother. Now Jean-Michel is engaged, and the lucky lady's parents are due in town to meet their daughter's soon-to-be in-laws. Trouble is, the father is one Edouard Dindon, the biggest social conservative and, from the sound of it, cryptofascist in the French political scene. So! Out with the be-penised frescoes and statues of well-endowed male youths; in with the crucifix and the garish Virgin Mary statuary. Out with the cross-dressing maid, in with John Wayne and playing it straight. And Albin, who is too outlandishly queer to be anything other than, y'know, outlandishly queer, must go.
What we've got here is the framework for a moving yarn about loyalty, balls, and self-assertion. That and, in this incarnation, a handful of Jerry Herman's best-ever tunes, songs that wrap the big fun of high-gloss Broadway tune-smithery around the tough core of Herman's own hard-won self-respect is what makes La Cage classic. When the Actor's Playhouse production works, it works because the cast and director were sensible enough to give these elements room to breathe.
As George, Jerry Gulledge is dapper almost to a fault; his poise is so statuesque that his first few moments of tenderness, in "With You On My Arm" and "Song On The Sand," are incongruous. But that tenderness, we realize, is the truth of the man far more so than his stiff comportment would suggest. Like Albin, he is what he is, the result of the constant balancing act that is his life: the club and the people who fill it; his son; the ego of Albin, his singing star; the heart of Albin, his love. It's a hard existence, but he adores it, and his almost courtly demeanor is the face of extraordinary benevolence and saintly patience.
All of that is essential to both the story and its message, but much of the pleasure to be found in this version of La Cage comes from the inessential, from tertiary characters and situations. There's a lot to like, but we can pick a few things at random. The Cagelles, the mostly-drag showgirls at La Cage, are divine, and Christopher Crowthers and Cannon Starnes in particular have two of the most fabulously magnetic faces to ever get dunked in foundation. Marcus Davis, as the butler/maid "Jacob," appears to be having the time of his life, flitting around the stage as a freakish soubrette/Mozart hybrid. He is a cartoon with a pulse, an amalgam of unknown dozens of tired, unexamined gay stereotypes, but Davis's comic timing is so precise and his showbiz instincts so keen that it's impossible to mind. Likewise, Angie Radosh, getting just a little face time as the daft wife of Edouard Dindon, plays clueless like an instrument. Watching her stagger, punch-drunk, through her whirlwind introduction to the world of transvestite cabaret is like watching. well, it's not a sight that brooks a lot of comparisons. But it's great to see.
Not everything is so great. Some of the characters have been directed far too lightly, or else not at all. It's hard to feel connected to a heartwarming family drama in which one of the central figures in the family say, an only son is utterly unsympathetic. But that's the case with Jean-Michel, as portrayed by E. L. Losada, as directed by David Arisco. When George is stalling in explaining to Albin that he's got to clear out before the in-laws arrive, an exasperated Jean-Michel says, "Would you tell him already?" in exactly the same tone you'd use to tell a lazy housemate to take out the trash. This sets the tone of his entire portrayal, and it's not easy to get past. Things get a lot better when Losada starts singing: He has a beautiful, milky tenor that contains all the sweetness his dramatic portrayal lacks.
Other problems include: Peter Haig, who, as Dindon, mistakes bluster for imperiousness and creates a monster that not even a pansy could be afraid of (or even an idiot would vote for); and Cecilia Isis Torres's portrayal of Jean-Michel's love interest, Anne, whom, for all the weight and characterization she's given, might as well not exist at all.
A nonexistent love interest; a weak antagonist; an unsympathetic young lover. These problems would doom most productions, but this La Cage is anything but doomed. It's a superb show, and although a lot of the credit goes to the source material, the orchestra, and the lovely Gulledge, Davis, and Cagelles, the success or failure of the piece has always depended upon Albin. He is the dramatic and musical focus of La Cage, and we are moved only if he's moving; we'll laugh only if he's funny; we'll believe only if he's believable. As portrayed by Gary Marachek, Albin is all of those things. Like the maid/butler Jacob, Albin is the product of stereotypes stacked upon stereotypes, but Marachek makes those stereotypes breathe. Marachek's Albin is utterly affected but unflinchingly human; an uneasily aging and self-absorbed basket case that is, at the same time, a pillar of love and unshakable inner strength. At the end of Act I, when he sings "I Am What I Am," he sings it with a conviction and resolve that make the George Hearn cast recording sound phoned in. This man means it, and we're glad we wouldn't want him to be anything else.
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