By Karen Isaacs
Bravo Goodspeed Musicals! Bravo Rob Ruggiero! Bravo Jamison Stern (who plays Albin/ZaZa)!
Before you read further, stop, visit goodspeed.org and order tickets to see this fabulous production.
Goodspeed’s production of La Cage aux Folles which runs through September 10, is the type of production that has critics thumbing their thesauruses for synonyms for magnificent, fabulous, wonderful and more.
I’ve seen the three Broadway productions plus others and this rivals the original production in 1983 that starred George Hearn and Gene Barry.
If you do not know this show, it is based on a French play and later very popular French film of the same name, though technically the show is based only on the play. (The original producers could not get the rights to the film which included a character – Jean-Michel’s mother – that was not in the play and is not in the musical.)
Many people will remember the American movie version of the play – The Birdcage which starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams and was set in South Beach. The film was made in 1996, thirteen years after the musical.
Georges and Albin are a well established (20 years) gay couple living in Saint Tropez on the French Riviera. They live about their nightclub, La Cage aux Folles which features a drag show with Albin as the star ZaZa. They have raised Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, the result of a brief fling when Georges was very young.
Jean-Michel wants to marry Anne, but there is a major stumbling block: Her father is a prominent and ambitious politician whose platform is pro-family/anti-gay and who wants to shut down “sin palaces” like La Cage. Jean-Michel has invited the parents and Anne to meet his parents – but by this he means his father and birth mother, who has never really been a part of his life. She is what might be called a “party girl” who has failed to turn up for important events multiple times. He also wants Albin NOT to be present.
It is easy to understand that this causes a dilemma for Georges who reluctantly goes along and must tell Albin the news. The second act focuses on the visit – from removing décor from the apartment, to teaching Albin how to act like “Uncle Al,” to the actual visit. The visit is initially a disaster as once again Jean-Michel’s mother backs out of attending; Albin steps into the role of mother but at one point reveals that he is a man. Anne’s politician father is outraged. Unfortunately the press has arrived and so Georges and Albin help sneak the parents out of the area as part of the drag show. Thus all ends happily.
Just think: at the time of this musical (1983) gay marriage or marriage equality was not even thought about and the AIDS epidemic was just beginning.
So a musical about a happily “married” gay couple and their son – and where one partner was a “drag queen” was a huge risk. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Arthur Laurents directed.
Together they created a piece about a stable though unconventional family where the parents had a deep love for each other. It was about that love, the selfishness of youth (and how the eyes are opened), and the desire to be accepted for who you really are.
So let’s turn to the Goodspeed production. Here go the superlatives.
The set by Michael Schweikardt recreates the French Riviera and also creates the multiple settings necessary –the nightclub, the apartment, a café and a restaurant. It all seems real. The lighting by John Lasiter is effective as is the sound design by Jay Hilton.
Michael McDonald’s costumes are magnificent. He has created a variety of glamorous and sexy costumes for the la Cagelles (the drag chorus) as well as for ZaZa. The Chanel-like suit for ZaZa as “mother” is something any woman would love to wear. There are enough bugle beads and sparkle dust to transport you to the nightclub.
Both Rob Ruggiero as director and Ralph Perkins as choreographer have not only gotten the most out of the small stage, but emphasized the French feel and the emotional warmth and depth of the piece. The entire cast dances up a storm from the gentle soft shoe of Georges and Albin’s “With You on My Arm” to the exuberant can-can-esque dances of the La Cagelles. Ruggiero is a master at using the small playing space to his advantage and bringing out the humanity and personal relationships that get the audience totally involved.
Now to the performers. All are excellent both in their acting and their singing. James Lloyd Reynolds as Georges has the least showy role though he is the hub around which the entire show revolves. He is the emcee, the concerned and loving father and also the devoted spouse. He has to balance the feeling of both his son and Albin. He doesn’t want to hurt either yet it will happen. Reynolds lets you see the man – as the suave emcee inviting us to the club, and the human being who is uncomfortable with the position in which he is placed by his son yet unable to truly say no.
Conor Ryan as Jean-Michel conveys the self-absorption and lack of insight of youth yet he too evolves during the show. You may be annoyed with him, but Ryan never lets you really dislike the character.
The other supporting characters are very good: Kristen Martin has the most underwritten role as Anne but she plays her as the ingénue she is. Sue Mathys makes Jacqueline – the owner of a nearby restaurant and friend of Georges and Albin’s – the self-promoting persona necessary.
Cedric Leiba, Jr. is terrific as Jacob, the butler/maid . Leiba and Ruggiero has made him utterly outrageous without letting him go so far over the top that he becomes annoying. It is controlled excellence.
That brings me to Jamison Stern as Albin/ZaZa. Words almost fail me. During the performance , I could not keep my eyes off his face. He was always reacting to what was going on and being said. The reactions were subtle and absolutely right.
In addition he captured both Albin and ZaZa in both his movements and his songs. The act one close, “I Am What I Am” had an emotional jolt that I’ve seldom experienced.
Praise could also be heaped on other members of the supporting cast –each was very, very good.
La Cage aux Folles at Goodspeed is one production this summer you should not miss. It runs through Sept. 10. For tickets contact goodspeed.org.