San Diego Theater Review: LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (San Diego Musical Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on September 28, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


If any gay activist ever derides this delightful musical, they would do well to remember just how radical La Cage aux Folles was when it hit Broadway in 1983 (the original play [1973] and film [1978] even more so). A third of a century later, it’s still a merry, gender-bending masquerade, a bourgeois equivalent of Kiss of the Spider Woman. But for all its sex-smashing glitz and farcical laughs, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s flagrant, fluffy frippery still manages to push the hot button issues of the day: 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, which are triggered by plot involving a home invasion of predatory puritans.

David Engel, Bren Thor Johnson and Robert J Townsend in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES..With efficiency and love, Larry Raben’s San Diego Musical Theatre staging definitely delivers the sheer workmanship of this well-made social comedy, from the killer choreography by Karl Warden—which spoofs everything from the can can to Minsky’s Burlesque—to heart-stopping hoofing, wizardly comic timing, and a band of eight musicians that sounded like many more under Don LeMaster’s leadership.

The frothy plot—in which two French 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 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?)

Taylor Shubert, Alex Sanchez, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Ala Tiatia, Scott Frausto and Donny Gersonde in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.

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.

Scott Frausto, Luke Harvey Jacobs, David Engel, Taylor Shubert, Donny Gersonde and Ala Tiatia in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES..

Robert J. Townsend, as the “plain homosexual” Georges, offers sturdy, suave, impassioned support for David Engel’s irrepressible “I Am What I Am” drama-queen Albin/Zaza. Engel literally runs the gamut from A to Z, offering a cunning combination of energetic substance, flaming pizzazz and lyrical self-pity. Engel’s non-threatening Albin never resorts to a Harvey Fierstein-type gravel growl or a Nathan Lane-esque outlandishly sly subversive. He’s a much more accessible queen-(and a very real “mother”)-turned-empress. Watching Engel’s comically painful fish-out-of-water attempts to walk like a man (“Masculinity”) say all you need to know about “gay conversion” theories.

Robert J. Townsend and David Engel in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

This production also belongs to six of the hardest working dancers in memory. The industriously androgynous grisette-style Les Cagelles are acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, and circus acts rolled into one. At times, they seemed like decadent refugees from the Kit Kat Klub, drenched in individual personality and triumphant pride. Plus, they’re hysterical—especially when they take on the roles of lunatic birds. The six are Scott Frausto, Donnie Gersonde, Luke H. Jacobs, Alex Sanchez, Taylor Shubert, and Ala Tiatia.

Robert J. Townsend and David Engel in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.

Lovely-voiced tall-drink-of-water Bren Thor Johnson is suitably straight as Jean-Michel, the undamaged child of two dads, and Ashley Ruth Johnson is his devoted and adoring Anne. David Mitchum Brown suitably sneers and struts as the stuffed-shirt M. Dindon (French for “turkey”) and Debra Wanger cuts loose in a dithering frenzy as Mme. Dindon.

James Vasquez, Robert J Townsend and Bren Thor Johnson in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES..

Unfortunately, James Vasquez (who has previously directed for SDMT) is a fish-out-of-water as Albin’s stagestruck maid/butler Jacob. It’s not that Jacob is supposed to be black and in his early 20s, but Vasquez has neither the vocal chops nor the sensibility for the role. Sure he’s sweet, but he comes off more like a silly Pseudolus (from A Funny Thing) than the mincing, incendiary, caustic, sarcastic, overdramatic busybody in the script.

Luke Harvey Jacobs, Scott Frausto, Donny Gersonde, Ala Tiatia and Alex Sanchez in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES..

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. Here, 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 a very mainstream musical.

David Engel (front) with (l to r) Robert J. Townsend, Bren Thor Johsnon, Ashley Ruth Jones, David Itchum Brown, Debra Wanger in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.

David Engel (Zaza) in SDMT's LA CAGE AUX by Ken Jacques Photography

La Cage aux Folles
San Diego Musical Theatre
Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway
Thurs at 7:30; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends October 11, 2015
for tickets, call 858.560.5740
or visit

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