By Karen Isaacs
It’s only when you see a tepid production of La Cage aux Folles do you realize how difficult it is to stage this Tony-award winning musical.
Just think about the problems in both casting and directing. You need a group of male dancers who can also double as “La Cagelles” — the transvestite showgirls in the night club. Your leading men need to have really chemistry between them. And the actor playing Albin (also known as the star ZaZa) must have a voice that can pass as feminine.
Add to that the curve ball that Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, the book writer, throws at the director. The show is both farce and romance. A good part of it is farce, yet throughout it is also a sentimental and old-fashioned love story. How do you blend it all?
I wish I could say that Ivoryton Playhouse’s production succeeds. I can’t.
La Cage aux Folles is based on a French play which later became a hit film. (I’m sure you know that later the film was remade as The Birdcage, set in New Orleans and starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams). Georges and Albin, a homosexual couple who have been together for years run a nightclub in St. Tropez. The club features a drag show — with Albin the star as ZaZa. They have also raised a son, the result of a one-night dalliance that Georges had as a very young man. The son, Jean-Michel announces that he is engaged to Anne, the daughter of a prominent Family values politician who views all of St. Tropez as a moral cesspool which he intends to shut down and clean up.
The farce elements of the show mostly revolve around some backstage shenanigans but mainly around the effort of Jean Michel to “clean up” his parents lifestyle and for Georges and Albin to attempt to pass as more mainstream.
The romance centers around the “old married couple” of Georges and Albin and Albin’s hurt feelings when he is banished from the dinner with Anne’s parents.
So how do you bring these disparate elements together? The original Broadway production featured lots of glitz — the nightclub was obviously up-scale. The most recent revival, took a different approach — Albin was more British musical hall that glamorous star and the nightclub was more second (third?) tier than first.
Director Lawrence Thelen seems to have gone with the second approach BUT – and this is a big but — without the music hall humor. So this nightclub is definitely one or two stars, not four. This shows up in the costumes by Njaye Olds. The La Cagelles – the chorus outshine ZaZa; in fact her costumes seem almost like housedresses.
Music director Michael Morris has slowed the tempo on many of the songs which loses energy. The big first act closing number, “I Am Who I Am” sounds less like a defiant anthem, and more like a dirge.
So, let’s turn to the cast. Both David Edwards as Albin and James Van Trauren as Georges have played these roles before. Yet except for a few moments of true emotion that Edwards provides, it seems more like they are going through the motions. It all seems forced. Zach Trimmer as the son, Jean-Michel projects less the self-centeredness of youth and more just plain callousness. Phil Young as the maid/butler Jacob is allowed to over-play even in a role that is noted for its over-the-top outrageousness. Contrasted with the more subdued playing of the other characters, it just is out of balance.
Yet there are some very good things as well in this production. The choreography by Todd L. Underwood and the dancing by the La Cagelles are excellent. The eight piece orchestra provides solid support for the performers.
Although Ivoryton has done fine productions of big musicals — last year’s Dream Girls was very good — the theater may have been tripped up in this production by a limited budget and the limited stage size. This is a show that requires some razzle-dazzle, and this production just can’t deliver. Yet the audience was enthusiastic and when balanced with the ticket prices, this is still a good value.
La Cage aux Folles is at the Ivoryton Playhouse through Aug. 31. For tickets and information contact the Playhouse at 860-767-7318 or online at http://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.