Chicago Theater Review: LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 5, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

TITS AND ASSHOLES

Gay activists who deride this delight forget just how radical the musical was in 1983 (the original film even more so in 1973). A third of a century later, it’s still a merry, gender-bending masquerade, a bourgeois equivalent of Kiss of the Spider Woman. For all its sex-smashing glitz and farcical laughs, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s flagrant, Tony-winning La Cage Aux Folles pushes today’s hot buttons: gay marriage, gay parenting, sexual freedom, and the family’s ever-evolving makeup. Instead of merely asking the viewer to accept a possibly alien but flauntingly fabulous lifestyle—drag dancers in a cross-cultural nightclub on the Riviera—La Cage activates an audience’s protective instincts, triggered by a home invasion of predatory puritans.

Gene Weygandt with Cagelles

By the fleshy/flashy finale the audience fully identifies with sturdy Saint-Tropez citizens Georges and Albin “Quelquechose” (their real names are their last “closet”) and their fully functioning family. Happily, this empathy feeds on a threat: These sweet survivors confront reactionary bigots who would ban a “lifestyle” difference that feeds only on their ignorance.

David Hess and Gene Weygandt 5

Cleverly and devastatingly, the show fuses together two potent freedoms—the right to love and the right to privacy. It opens and sticks with one bedrock reality—a contented, if excessive, domicile in the south of France—and makes that place in the sun worth defending, farcically and desperately. Yes, it’s life “at an angle” but love is love is love.

David Hess as GeorgesHappily, laughter is an argument that only life-haters can resist (i.e., fundamentalists of all persuasions). That bedrock plea for simple fairness makes La Cage Aux Folles a very mainstream musical. The frothy plot—in which two Riviera poofs, proprietors of the titular boite de nuit, must  conceal their gay mecca from their adored son’s sexophobic future in-laws—makes a persuasively undogmatic case for tolerance. Because, no question, Georges and Albin (also an entertainer whose drag name is “Zaza”) are perfect parents. La Cage Aux Folles is, like William Finn’s Falsettos, a definitive musical about families and values, even if you question a plot that initially implies that Albin’s exile from the home he kept for over two decades is, it seems, open-ended. (Just when were Georges and his son Jean-Michel going to tell his fiancée’s family, the Dindons, about “Zaza”? After they’ve tricked them into going along with a seemingly middle-class marriage?)

Gene Weygandt with Cagelles 4

Apart from Herman’s contagiously singable score and laugh-out-loud lyrics, La Cage, like its French source, is a marvel of taut dramatic construction, with a terrific first-act finale, Fierstein’s whiplash-witty dialogue, and a farcical build-up in the second that reduces homophobia to a contemptible cartoon.

Joseph Anthony Byrd and Brian Bohr

A tad too efficient to be exciting, Joe Leonardo’s never urgent Marriott Theater staging at least delivers the sheer workmanship of this well-made social comedy, from the killer choreography by Melissa Zaremba—which spoofs everything from the can can to Minsky’s Burlesque—to the psychological precision of even the broadest sight gags. Heart-stopping hoofing and wizard comic timing–you get a lot less elsewhere.

La Cage Cagelles 2

The casting is not quite casebook perfect. David Hess, as the “plain homosexual” Georges, is a somewhat stiff “lifetime companion,” declamatory when he could be more intimate. Never too robotic to be real, Hess offers sturdy if unimpassioned support. But then he’s the norm from which his extravagant lover totally departs. As always, the flamboyant focus is on the irrepressible “I Am What I Am” drama-queen Albin/Zaza (who literally runs the gamut from A to Z). A cunning combination of flaming pizzazz and lyrical self-pity, Gene Weygandt is more kind than carnivorous, his pouting pity parties more style than substance. Weygandt’s non-threatening Albin never resorts to Harvey Fierstein’s gravel growl or Nathan Lane’s sly subversion. He’s a much more accessible queen-(and a very real “mother”)-turned-empress. Still, Zaza’s painful fish-out-of-water attempts to walk like a man (“Masculinity”) say all you need to know about “gay conversion” theories. For him, “The Best of Times,” usually an eleven o’clock crowd-pleaser a la Mame and Hello, Dolly, is instead a promissory note for a time when Zaza and Albin are neither separate nor unequal.

Elizabeth Telford, Anne Gunn, Fred Zimmerman

Rotund and pompous, Fred Zimmerman sneers and struts as the stuffed-shirt Dindon (French for “turkey”). Nonetheless, this grand inquisitor, a politician on a sexual pogrom, never seems threatening enough to deserve his comeuppance (which, according to a suddenly mean-spirited Albin, means never again seeing his daughter at Christmas or Bastille Day). Curly-haired Brian Bohr is suitably straight and blandly “normal” as Jean-Michel, the undamaged child of two dads, and Elizabeth Telford is cluelessly devoted as his adoring Anne. Recalling Dianne Wiest in dithering frenzy, Anne Gunn cuts loose as Madame Dindon. Mincing to incendiary, resembling a very muscular Sammy Davis Jr., Joseph Anthony Byrd’s stagestruck “maid” Jacob is a lavender laugh machine. Like decadent refugees from the Kit Kat Klub, the seven “grisette”-style Cagelles are industriously androgynous.

Gene Weygandt with Cagelles 2

Conjuring up rapid-fire, in-the-round, scene shifting, Thomas M. Ryan’s mauve drapery and swift-moving set pieces are fitting foils for Nancy Missimi’s sequin-crazed, starlit-spangled costumed camouflage. Here vicarious thrills are the nightly bill of fare: Legend and rumor combine to create what is, literally speaking, a topsy-turvy “cage for the crazy.” What you see is not necessarily what you get.

photos courtesy Mark Campbell Photography and The Marriott Theatre

La Cage aux Folles
The Marriott Theatre
10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire
Wed at 1 & 6; Thurs and Fri at 8;
Sat at 4:30 & 8; Sun at 1 & 5
ends on March 22, 2015
for tickets, call 847.634.0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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