Amongst the fun and frivolity of the feathers and glitter, the wigs and the legs onstage, backstage and above, a show of its own unfolds at La Cage aux Folles; a drag cabaret nightclub on the seedier side of St Tropez.
It was no surprise that The Production Company’s new staging of Jerry Herman’s (music and lyrics) La Cage aux Folles would be big and colourful. I wasn’t quite prepared, however, for the huge laughs which filled the Playhouse Theatre in a story where no amount of comdey can hide the obstacles experienced from wanting to be uniquely ourselves while balancing our desire to belong. With his talented artistic and creative team, director Dean Bryant expertly allows the story to reflect its poignancy in what is both tenderly moving and deliciously entertaining musical theatre.
The simplicity of Dale Ferguson’s set design lets the action juggle perfectly between dressing room, nightclub, apartment, outdoor café and restaurant, even integrating a small, concealed onstage orchestra. Matt Scott’s concoction of subtle lighting shifts contributes to a production bursting with creative talent and energy. Courtesy of Owen Phillips’ sumptuously tacky costumes, Todd McKenney as drag queen Zaza (the rather more “clam-orous” than glamorous star of La Cage aux Folles) “shells up” and struts about to work his comic bite as he winds up his audience in an unforgettable display of showbiz oomph and “shellebration”. Offstage as Albin, McKenney is much the same man on the outside but we feel deeply every joy and every setback that comes his way. McKenney’s knack to balance sensitivity and comedy with tonnes of vocal shading is refreshingly palpable.
Albin’s partner of more than 20 years and owner of La Cage aux Folles, is Georges, playfully directorial in his relationship with Albin and coolly and ardently coloured by Simon Burke. Right through to their last extended loving kiss in the finale, the chemistry between the entrepreneur and his class act is never lost, neither dramatically nor musically. As a duo, Act I’s ‘With you on my arms’ and Act II’s ‘Song on the sand’ (reprise) and ‘Masculinity’, McKenney and Burke’s performance thrusts “minority” mightily and thoughtfully to the fore.
In this contemporary adaption, as Georges’ Gen Y son Jean-Michel (raised by the gay couple), Robert Tripolino looks hardly ready to shave let alone marry, but what would I know? Tripolino’s Jean-Michel is heaped with theatrical upbringing, and despite coming across far too innocently for a boy who has a string of past girlfriends, he sure convinces his parents and his audience he’s adamant in marrying Anne, who is played with delightful, awestruck vagueness by Emily Milledge.
When Jean-Michel introduces Anne’s parents to his fabricated family of ‘heterosexual normality’, a collision course of morals is plotted but dignity and justice conquer. Anne’s father, Edouard Dindon, acted with bemused rigidity by Gary Sweet, is the leader of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party”. Marg Downey as his wife Marie exposes both a naivety and curious readiness to go with the flow as a satirical jab is inflicted on their ultra-conservative ideology.
Oh, and ricocheting like a pinball across the stage in unbounded effeminate bliss as the butler/maid Jacob, Aljin Abella both helps but hampers events along while dreaming of stardom on the La Cage aux Folles stage. With Rhonda Burchmore’s leggily extravagant appearance and luscious vocal depth as the hostess of Chez Jacqueline, the stage is forever bursting with big personalities.
Jerry Herman’s music cleverly catches and propels every poignantly camp moment while maxing out its surprisingly short list of melodies on rewind, in so doing pleasurably raising the hum-ability index. With a spread of just eight musicians from Orchestra Victoria, conductor Mathew Frank equally and gloriously maxes the music with precision and flair.
The fast-paced and effortless flow of Act I reaches it’s best as McKenney’s Zaza audaciously gallivants with the audience, then blends in with his loveable lot of pliable transvestite beauties known as Les Cagelles, who prove they can dance to Andrew Hallsworth’s scintillating choreography and “Good God”, sing (right from the start) in my favourite routine – beachside in swimming costumes with their boogie boards and their sunscreen-boy. But just as you laugh, a tear is shed as McKenney renders ‘I Am What I Am’ with stabbing pathos.
Accents perpetually slip between plain English, Aussie-English and French-English and Act II momentarily suffers from a lack of momentum as the Dindons arrive to meet the ‘parents’, but the batch of songs are rapturously delivered in consistently marvellous form. In the end, everyone gets the chance to camp it up, often a bit more than required in a show that puts the shoe (or stiletto) on the other foot. There’s still much this work has to say when you open your heart to it and it opens its doors to you.
Enjoy, and walk away with a fresh point of view.