Thursday, April 12, 2012
Theater review: La Cage Aux Folles at Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas
This revival is a million times funnier and much more emotional than the previous two.
My very first trip to the big Red Apple was on my senior high school trip. And don't you dare ask what year! I saw an armful of Broadway musicals that still had their original casts intact. One of them was called La Cage Aux Folles at the Palace Theater. I knew nothing about this musical, had never seen the film nor read anything about it.
So there I sat, five rows from the orchestra, as a sea of sequins, beads, laughter, tears, a gay love story, family unity, and a glorious score drowned my senses. I was completely mesmerized watching George Hearn and Gene Barry as they led the cast through this beautiful, glitzy bauble of a musical comedy with so much warmth, love and heart. If you know me personally, the exposure to all this glitz could explain my…um…slight addiction to glitter, sequins, and rhinestones.
That same trip I saw the original casts of Nine, Dreamgirls, and several other big, splashy musicals. My palette and immense love for the musical theater was born on that trip thanks to La Cage and all the rest.
In 2004 I saw the Broadway revival of La Cage at the Marquis Theater, starring Gary Beach (Tony winner for The Producers) and Daniel Davis (best known as the snooty butler on TV's The Nanny). This gorgeous revival was directed and choreographed by the great Jerry Mitchell. While this revival received mixed reviews by the New York press, I again savored every moment of it and thought it was superb.
I also saw the national tour that came through DSM back in the early '90s. Another note worthy version of Herman's La Cage that I thoroughly enjoyed was mounted in the later 1990s at Casa Manana, starring Tony Award nominee Lee Roy Reams as ZaZa.
When the original La Cage opened on Broadway in 1983, a strange, new disease called AIDS was beginning its first wave of taking so many innocent lives. Several activists such as Larry Kramer felt that La Cage should have reflected or commented on AIDS somewhere in its book and score. But composer Jerry Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein avoided it. Everyone in the original were very nervous to open this expensive musical whose central theme was a gay couple, and that included drag queens, while outside the stage doors was all this chaos and uprising regarding AIDS and the stigma it created on the gay community. But in a strange twist, everyone loved the themes of love and family unity. The fact that the parents were two gay men didn't seem to matter whatsoever. It has been well documented that many straight families and couples walked out of the Palace Theater in tears because the musical's main themes, music and book deeply moved them.
One major change between the 1983 and the 2004 version was the final moment. In the original, George and Zaza walked hand in hand upstage towards a sequined, art deco back drop symbolizing a St. Tropez sunrise. In the 2004 revival, the couple walked upstage towards a beautiful scenic design of miniature buildings, cafes, etc. that resembled St. Tropez, and behind that the blue sea. As the sun set, the couple looked at each other and kissed as the curtain came down to a standing ovation. They could have never done that in 1983. But my, have times changed.
The original La Cage won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, beating Sondheim's Sunday the Park with George. In fact La Cage has a distinct honor in the Tony Award history books. It is the only musical that won Best Musical it its original run, but then both the 2004 and 2010 revivals also won Tonys for Best Revival. No other musical holds that honor.
The musical would receive a third revival in 2010, only this time it was stripped down from much of the glitz and glamour of the two previous versions. The original had twelve La Cagelles (ten men, two women), the 2004 revival it was twelve men portraying the La Cagelles. But the 2010 version whittled them down to just six men.
This third revival was actually a critically acclaimed transfer from Britain. They not only brought this new version to the intimate Longacre Theater on Broadway but they also brought along its original star, Douglas Hodge, who won the Tony in 2010. This time around the Gothic critics heaped praise on this new vision of La Cage. It is this new third revival that has now planted their gowns, sequins, and beads at the Dallas Summer Musicals stage at the Music Hall at Fair Park (playing through April 22). This national tour stars Hollywood legend George Hamilton and two time Tony Award nominee, Broadway leading man fave, Christopher Sieber.
Full disclosure here: I was very lucky in having my press seats in the special "cabaret" section. Like they did at the Longacre, DSM has put a floor over the orchestra pit and placed tiny cocktail tables that are right by the stage. Thus you are very close to all the action and are even used as play toys by the Le Cagelles and Zaza. Also sitting so close you really are able to observe every tiny physical gesture and hear delicious bon-bons of one-liners that the body mics do not pick up. Another bonus having these seats is to really look at the exquisite beading, wigs and makeup.
Try to get there early for they have a drag queen on stage as the warm up act. At last night's opening the drag queen who served up the laughs went by the name of Lily White Ass. She got some delicious wicked zingers when she asked questions to the audience. Yes, some of them are adult themed and naughty but we're at La Cage! I'm sure some of her jokes, including a couple of political ad-libs, made some of those rigid, rich Republican Dallasites in the house turn stone cold- but for this critic, it was worth the laughs!
When you have seen the original and the first major revival, soaking in and devouring every single line, song, lyric, joke, and moment, you will pick up on the changes done within this third revival, and boy, there were a lot!
And changes are what I want when there are revivals mounted. I'm even talking about local productions of musicals. Nothing is more tedious than having to sit through a musical you've seen before, and all they do is either copy the boot leg video/DVD of the original, look at YouTube for other versions, or worse, do it "as is" or exactly what is written on the script, including the original stage directions. I have sat through dozens of paint by number, snore-filled replicas of shows that have the stink of "been there, seen that." A keen, brilliant director, his or her production team, designers, and cast that are willing to repaint and reconstruct an artistically new version of a past musical is VERY hard to find. This third revival of La Cage does that a million times over.
The book is broken down line by line and is given a glistening polish. New jokes are inserted. Now I don't know if book writer Harvey Fierstein did this or in rehearsal the cast came up with them. But the new one-liners and ad-libs had me guffawing loudly all night long. They even clean up some of the weaker moments within the book that I always feel slows down the pace. It's been some time since I could not stop laughing at a musical throughout the evening. There is a cascade of new one-liners that have you wiping tears of laughter off your face. And the ad-libs! Ad-libs, when warranted, should be done within the moment. They should NEVER steal focus from others on stage. If used, it is to give the moment on stage that extra "bump" of laughter. When actors look into the audience, using an ad-lib just to steal focus or try to "up" one on their co-stars, it ruins the comedic subtext, pace, and flow of the show. But when they are used correctly, as this La Cage company does, then it is a whole new level of outlandish comedy resulting in waves of laughter, as it did last night at the Music Hall at Fair Park.
Jerry Herman's score has never sounded more grand, robust and glorious. Many of the songs have been tweaked musically by Herman. He is greatly assisted with new orchestrations and dance arrangements by Jason Carr. Several numbers are divided up to be sung by other characters on stage. And guess what? It actually works better.
This reassigning brings vivid new life and comedy moments throughout the evening. Herman also has composed several new reprises and added new lyrics to several songs, giving a glittery new coat of musicality paint to his score and lyrics. Some of the new compositions actually aid greatly in moving the plot along better than the previous two versions.
Director Terry Johnson, who directed the recent third Broadway revival, and Choreographer Lynne Page also helm this national tour. Johnson won the 2010 Tony award for this revival which he so richly deserves. Page received a Tony nomination for her athletic, sensual, bawdy choreography.
Johnson dissects every single line, both book and lyric, and constructs from the ground up a new La Cage. Also, with Page's choreography, all the musical numbers are completely new in their comedic and dramatic moments. I won't spoil the bountiful riches of exciting, new, and dazzling creations they have done with the production numbers. If you have seen the original or the 2004 revival, you ain't seen nothin' yet!
The book scenes are given layers of resounding laughter thanks to their staging, blocking, and direction. The cuts, changes and additions to the material are jaw dropping marvelous. As I observed each scene and number, I kept thinking, "Why didn't they think of that the first time around?"
The choreography by Page bursts with such high energy, camp, sensuality, and athleticism, and it makes you so exhausted watching the Cagelles execute this choreography, you want to reach for a Gatorade!
All the big production numbers are executed with exquisite, vibrant, exuberant results.
Johnson and Page are like a pair of musical theater archeologists. They excavate deep into the material, into the book and score, layer upon layer. And what they discover is a completely new musical. That is how every musical should be looked at in my book. I am overwhelmed and just in awe of the artistic glory that Johnson and Page do with this La Cage.
Okay, I can't help it. I'll give you one example of how drastically different this version is than the original and 2004 revival. Let's take the title number, which in English literally means "the cage of madwomen." "Folles," however, is also a slang term for effeminate homosexuals (queens). The expression does not really mean "birdcage".
In the original, Zaza came down from the rafters on a white swing, like one a bird would be perched on. Then the twelve Cagelles came in on swings while others walked onto the stage. All were in bejeweled costumes that had a massive, billowing array of colorful feathers and plumes attached to their costumes or headdresses. This was just for the first section of the number. Then the Cagelles disappeared to return again in Can-Can costumes with layers of petticoats for the high energy number. For the last big, belting verse and ending, the Cagelles joined Zaza all dressed in white sequined leotards and white tuxedo jackets covered in jewels. To top it all off, they all wore these tight, black wigs that were slicked back and cut to resemble men's hairdos. Except those black wigs were made of black beading, and on each side were large rhinestone earrings.
For the 2004 revival, the twelve Cagelles were placed in a massive birdcage that took up most of the stage. On top was Chantal, the operatic Cagelle, singing full out arias and trills. Underneath her, the Cagelles had these grand ostrich plume fans that they used to cover the birdcage, making it look like it was Chantal's gown. This time the Cagelles were costumed already in Can-Can costumes with ruffles underneath their billowing skirts.
In the newest version, Zaza, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, sings to the audience, talks to the audience and then goes into the audience! Once she has slayed the audience in laughter, the Cagelles appear. A much smaller birdcage sits dead center. The six Cagelles are choreographed to move and act like exotic, sensual birds. They flip, twist, and become human pretzels on the metal birdcage. Costume wise, they are dressed in red, ornate bustiers with a bump of glistening black feathers on their rumps. They disappear, and Zaza returns with a new costume. I will leave it that. But you will howl! The Cagelles return in Can-Can costumes where they do deft defying leaps, flips, kicks and spins. Then they jump high into the air, split their legs, and slam on the stage floor. Their ad-libs during that section had me almost tinkling in my pants! Zaza returns one more time in yet another costume, and it all ends with this incredible choreography that you have to see to believe. That is one example of the plethora of changes that await you at La Cage.
All three designers from the 2010 award-winning revival have recreated their splendid creations for this tour.
Tim Shortall's scenic design gives an overall effect of intimacy. The proscenium is lined with gold "boxes" with palm tree logos on them, each lit from behind in different colors. The sides resemble sweet St. Tropez cafes. The center serves as the "stage" for the club La Cage, with ruffle curtain to boot! It also becomes George and Albin's apartment, and later on the St. Tropez sea side. What adds great visual enhancement is how several backdrops are used. From the club to the seaside of St. Tropez, each backdrop adds the perfect touch.
These backdrops also aid in creating some smashing, eye popping scene changes. In a few swift seconds the audience goes from seeing the club's show, to quickly watching the set transform to the show from backstage, and now we see it from a different view. The switch over design of the apartment for the visit of Anne's parents is hysterical in its design and props.
The lighting design by Nick Richings is a cornucopia of color. There is an endless parade of specials and gobos that bathe the stage. Richings also designs soothing, romantic lighting for the St. Tropez seaside, and then glitzy and gaudy for the nightclub. He uses a rich palette of color for many of the musical numbers that gives them even more energy and pizzazz. There is a variety of lighting for the staircase and a glitzy backdrop of twinkling colorful lights for the finale.
Matthew Wright's costumes rival the original designer, the late Ms. Aldridge, who won the Tony in 1984 for her La Cage costumes. The musical is set in the '70s, thus the men in the ensemble are appropriately dressed in bell bottom polyester pants and shirts with those wide collars. Jean-Michael first appears in those bell bottom jeans and leather Jacket that we know Tony Manero wore in Saturday Night Fever.
But it is the costumes for Zaza, Jacob, and the Cagelles that makes me drool and become almost hypnotized with their blinding array of sequins, beads, rhinestones, and glitter. When the first number, "We Are What We Are" starts, the Cagelles are behind a backdrop, lit from behind in blood red. But when they move, you can actually hear the beading smack on their bodies. There is some very intricate design within the beading on many of the costumes and Zaza's gowns.
Wright's costume designs are ostentatious, extravagant and resplendent. They are a bountiful feast for the eyes!
This cast of La Cage Aux Folles performed Tuesday night as though every night was opening night. Their energy is electrifying and there isn't a single weak performance in the company. Within this peerless, talented cast there are several that deliver outstanding work, including Michael McCormick as M. Renaud, the conservative politician who has plans to tear down the clubs for morality sake. McCormick has this underlying subtext of a bitter Dick Chaney and Rush Limbaugh that tickles my funny bone.
Cathy Newman, playing Mme. Renaud, moves the audience as the dutiful
politician's wife. Very quiet, reserved, and obeying her husband's barking
orders, her facial reactions make the audience feel great empathy for her.
Michael Lowney as Jean-Michel has the teen idol looks that helps his characterization so much. He possesses a beautiful tenor voice that is clothed in a balanced vibrato. This role can become stale and one note but Lowney goes nowhere near there. He doesn't become a billowing, angry son as I've seen in the past.
He still shows respect for his parents but is desperately asking this one time for them to do him this one huge favor, even though it is a very cruel and heartbreaking favor. His second act solo sung to his parents will put a lump in throat.
Lowney's chemistry with Hamilton and Sieber is very touching. Especially with Hamilton. There is this wonderful father and son non-communication and subtext that flowed between them throughout the entire show.
I discovered Wednesday while interviewing the two major stars that Tuesday night was Lowney's first public performance in the role! He was rehearsed that day and put into the show that very night. I was flabbergasted when this was revealed to me. You would have not noticed that whatsoever in Lowney's sublime work.
There is still one character that sadly has never worked well in both book and score, and that is Anne, Jean-Michel's fiancée. Alas, she has no big solo and barely any book scenes. But Allison Blair McDowell does all she can to make the role memorable and enjoyable, and she does achieve that.
Suellen Estey is grand and full of fun as Jacqueline, the owner of a supper club. She has a lilting soprano voice that gives her solo portions in "Best of Times" great vocal strength.
As the butler…sorry, I mean maid, Jeigh Madjus' Jacob provides several big laughs with his over the top performance. His facial expressions are priceless and serve as great "comedic buttons" to his dialogue and characterization. Normally this role is played by an African American actor. But in the 2010 revival he was portrayed by Latino actor Robin DeJesus, earning him a Tony nomination. I state this because Madjus uses what sounds like a Latin accent, but as the evening progresses it changes to Filipino, Asian, Korean, and Vietnamese. It becomes confusing on just what accent he is using. This makes it difficult to understand him at times, resulting in that some of his wicked one-liners go unnoticed due to his enunciations and accent. Nonetheless he still gives the audience a widely comical performance.
The scene stealers of the evening though are the notorious Le Cagelles. These six men slather their faces with tons of makeup and glue on big lashes. They shave all their body hair, wear hose, an array of wigs, and lots of tight costumes that leave little to the imagination. Talk about the pains of tucking! They dance, tap, do out of this world gymnastics, flips and spins - all the while in heels! But then to also sing big, belting songs that have endless measures of sustaining long notes! That's what makes producing this musical so difficult. You have to have magnificent talent to make those Cagelles come to life, and these six men earn their kudos in abundance. What is even more enjoyable is how each Cagelle has their own personality, walk, and look. I don't know how much of the audience heard them, but their ad-libs during the production numbers or during the dressing room scenes are hilarious! These Cagelles are sexy, bawdy, raunchy, catty, and camp it up to gut-busting laughter. I am so impressed how each sings with full-out vocal technique.
Their comedic timing, pace, and delivery hits the comic bull's eye every single time. Just look at those legs! The gams on these Cagelles would make Angelina Jolie tuck that leg under her black gown and hide! And their dancing! OMG! It is magnificent, jaw dropping awesome, and executed with flawless technique. These scene stealing Cagelles are: Matt Anctil (Angelique), Logan Keslar (Bitelle), Donald C. Shorter, Jr. (Chantal, the operatic soprano!), Mark Roland (Hanna, the whip carrying dominatrix), Mercedes (Trevor Downey), and Dale Hensley (Phaedra).
Currently on NBC there is a critically acclaimed series called Smash which is about the making of a Broadway musical. Right now in the series storyline, in order to save the show, the producer decides that they need a big star as the lead to make the show a hit. This is now a common technique used on Broadway. Get big stars of film and television into expensive musicals to make them box office hits. Right now you have Nick Jonas in How to Succeed... (taking over for film star Daniel Radcliffe). Cheryl Brinkley is in Chicago, Ricky Martin in Evita, and the list goes and on and on. Sometimes they are big hits (Martin received glowing reviews as Che). But for every Hugh Jackman (Boy From Oz), you also can have Harry Connick Jr. who bombed horribly in the recent revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
For this La Cage, they have brought in MGM star, Hollywood legend George Hamilton as Georges, the husband to Albin/ZaZa. Hamilton is well known for his tanned features as well as his comedic work in films (my personal favorite is Zorro, the Gay Blade). He also was in Season six of Dancing with the Stars. On stage, Hamilton is dashing, handsome, and still has that great debonair aura about him that glows brightly on stage. He is a little quiet in his speaking voice so there are times it is difficult to hear him. It would not be rude to say, but Hamilton is not a trained singer. He comes from the world of film and TV. Thus some of his vocals are strained and he has difficulty in sustaining notes. In several solos he does the Rex Harrison "talk sing" approach.
But his comedic talents are right on the money. His pace, delivery and timing in many of the scenes with his co-star Christopher Sieber are his finest moments on stage. The comedic staging for their duet "With You in My Arms" will have you howling in laughter. His facial expressions are priceless and work like a charm. He really shines though in the second act with both the comedic and dramatic elements within his characterization. He is very much in the moment with his son and Albin during the second and he touches your heart. Sure, he does struggle here and there (he got behind on the music in one song for a couple of measures) but he still provides a very pleasurable, charming, and crowd pleasing performance.
I confess that I am a raging, hard core Christopher Sieber fan. I became addicted when I saw his TV series It's All Relative. But then I saw him on Broadway in the original production of Spamalot and that sealed the deal for me. I peed in my pants with his rip-roaring performance in the Monty Python musical. So when it was announced he would be portraying Albin/ZaZa, I felt the musical theater gods had granted me my wish!
Having seen George Hearn (the original Albin), Gary Beach (2004 revival Albin), Lee Roy Reams (Casa Manana's Albin), and Nathan Lane (in the film version) tackle the role, I somehow felt that Sieber would out shine them all, even before I saw the show Tuesday night. And I was right! I feel that way because the phenomenal actor has this incredible, unique, and rare god- given gift of comedic talent. His pace, delivery and timing rivals even the master himself, Nathan Lane! But then he uses his body, facial expressions, and voice inflections to create these glittery baubles of comedic gems for every song, lyric, and line. He knows comedic subtext. He has that oh-so-rare gift of where to add more layers of comedy that is NOT in the script. Very few actors possess that talent. Sieber does! Top that off with a luxurious, ravishing tenor voice that can belt to the heavens or go into soft, ethereal vocal tones. He can even hit some bass notes to boot! All of this magnificent talent is encased in a tall, very handsome man! After all he has portrayed on Broadway Gaston in Beauty and the Beast; Lord Farquaad in Shrek, and even Billy Flynn in Chicago! Now that is a chameleon actor in my book!
As Albin/Zaza, Sieber is a million times funnier than Lane's film performance of the role. Every single time he appears on stage he has the audience rolling in the aisles with his tour de force comedic work. The man generates thunderous laughs even with the simplest lines in the book scenes. And those facial expressions and comedic talents - the audience could not get enough of Sieber's performance. There are innumerable examples of scenes, songs, and moments that Sieber has in this production that are so freaking hysterical. But I will let you discover them!
But then comes the dramatic arc of the role, and Sieber goes for the heart, the pain, and betrayal of his own child and husband. When he sings the ballad "I Am What I Am", he takes each lyric and transforms it into a powerful, emotional, cathartic anthem, not only for gay people, but for anyone whom society looks at as "different" or "odd."
As he sings this song, you can't help but think that, outside the Music Hall, we as a society are dealing with so much bullying of our gay teens and youth. There are all those suicides because they are treated so cruelly. Sieber starts off the ballad slow, internal, and almost embarrassed by what his son and husband wants him to do. He shows us how alone he feels in the world at that moment. But then he gains strength, courage, and pride as the song transgresses into higher notes and crescendos. Sieber sings with tears welling up in his eyes as he hits the big final note, filling the Music Hall with that extraordinary tenor voice. Several audience members stood up as he stood there taking in the thunderous applause. I was wiping tears away from my face that kept flowing throughout this number. The lady at our table was also crying. When the lights came up she turned to her friend and said, "That was incredible. I could not stop crying! My god, he was so powerful". I couldn't agree more! Sieber is the true star of La Cage Aux Folles, and it is a performance that ranks in my book as a legendary performance. You will NOT want to miss him in this role.
I sincerely hope that the material will not put people off from seeing it. It did not happen in 1983 when it opened at the Palace. But we're in Texas, Republican territory. This is a musical about family, parents, and their children growing up; letting them go. It's about love and marriage in all its facets. Okay, so there are drag queens and lots of bawdy adult humor. But nonetheless, the heart of its central themes is all still there.
Having seen the original Broadway production and the 2004 Broadway revival, this revival is a million times funnier and much more emotional than the previous two. This is the BEST production of La Cage Aux Folles that I have seen. You will sincerely regret missing this national tour! You will laugh till your face hurts but you'll also wipe a tear or two. So grab a fuchsia feather boa, add a rhinestone to your eye, a dash of glitter, and get a ticket to La Cage!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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