Review by Bonny Gable
June 25, 2019
A musical comedy set in a French Riviera nightclub naturally conjures the promise of an entertaining romp full of glitz and glamour, with bits of ribaldry and the risqué tossed in for good measure. As an exotic camp entertainment on steroids, Barter Theatre’s La Cage Aux Folles delivers on this promise in spades, as well as plenty of sequins and feathers. But within the folds of this dazzling ambience lies a surprisingly beautiful love story, of deep and everlasting love that defies description as much as it defies convention. A love that underpins the courage to make bold choices, to be true to oneself and live an authentic life, whatever that may look like to the rest of the world.
Bold choices and the inspiration of a French play by Jean Poiret spurred Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (lyrics and music) to create this musical in the early 1980s. Its staying power is proof of its solid message, needed as much today as it was forty years ago. Broadway success spawned the popular 1996 movie The Bird Cage, which capitalizes on the comedy of the characters’ dilemma. But this stage musical, while offering up plenty of laughs, has so much more heart. As a “mature audiences only” theatrical piece it is definitely not a family show, but it is very much a show about family. People in this story are joined together in love, nurturing and caring for one another despite life’s challenges, supporting each other by encouraging them to be who they are.
Georges is proprietor of La Cage Aux Folles, a French nightclub featuring glamorous drag queen entertainers. The club’s headliner, ZaZa, is his loving partner of twenty years, Albin. Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (product of an experimental liaison with a young woman), turns their busy yet blissful existence on its head when he returns home with news that he plans to marry. And not just any girl, but the daughter of ultra-conservative politician Edouard Dindon, leader of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, who is determined to shut down all drag clubs. A meeting of the parents is planned, but Jean-Michel falls prey to fear of judgment and wants Albin out of sight. Albin is crushed, but ultimately comes up with a brilliant plan that allows him not only to be present, but also to take the lead in the evening’s festivities. All hell breaks loose when he commits one faux pas that sends Dindon into a tizzy, but spurs him to desperately cooperate in a wildly hilarious escape plan.
Director Richard Rose brings out the heart of this show, a musical in its purest form: glamorous spectacle and amazing dance numbers coupled with a story driven by exciting action and characters who reveal themselves in songs that bare their souls. Through Dishon Smith’s musical direction and solo accompaniment the show’s fabulous score flourishes, delivering a host of melodies that stay with you long after
departing the theatre. Choreographer Amanda Aldridge takes advantage of this richly unique music by creating daring and eye-catching dance moves executed by a corps of artistically athletic dancers. Aldridge’s night club costume designs are a decadent surprise in flaming colors of lime, magenta, electric blue, and gold – all sequin studded and feather plumed to the hilt. Hana Lee has created a fitting collection of barred structures and “cages” to house the fabulous strutting ensemble.
Andrew Hampton Livingston as Albin gives a magnificent performance in one of the most challenging roles in musical theatre. He reveals the many facets of this complex character – the lover, the performer, the mother – and imbues them with openhearted humanity. His wonderful “A Little More Mascara” divulges Albin’s need to cope with inevitable ravages of time and keep hope alive. And in the show stopping solo “I Am What I Am” he abandons himself fully to the lyrics, allowing a view of Albin’s soul utterly exposed.
A gently powerful portrayal of Georges is rendered by Nicholas Piper. His touching rendition of “Song of the Sand,” a beautifully haunting song about young love that lasts forever, leaves no doubt that Georges and Albin are soul mates. Livingston and Piper express a chemistry between these two lovers that proves one is an extension of the other, a bond welding them together for life.
Justin Tyler Lewis is charming as the sweet but vulnerable Jean-Michel. Lewis makes quite evident the capacity for love Georges and Albin have passed on to their son. In “With Anne on My Arm” he sings with warmth and sincerity to his fiancée, and even in his foolish attempt to appease his prospective father-in-law he tries his best to accomplish it kindly.
A marvelous supporting cast complements the story of this remarkable family, not the least of whom are the Les Cagelles – Joey Fontana, Timothy Eidman, Erin Eloise and Abigail Gatlin – who comprise a high-octane quartet of talented singer/dancers who execute every high kick and acrobatic twist with precision and power.
At the heart of every theatrical illusion lies undeniable truth. We come to the theatre to indulge in illusion, but hopefully come away changed by truth. The most well known song from this show, “The Best of Times,” reminds us to live in the “now,” make the most of it, and find the courage to live life on our own terms. All it takes is a little guts and a lot of glitter.
Bonny Gable is a former theatre professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia.