La Cage aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Directed by Bryan Knowlton. Choreographed by Alisa Claire.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Look over there — somebody loves you more."
Phaedra, played by M. Coale-Gray; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
When Jerry Herman wrote the words above that open this review he found his way into the very heart of the matter. This 1983 Broadway musical, based on a French film comedy, was famous for its monstrous "drag" sequences and for the establishment of a gay couple as the centerpiece for the romance and emotions of the show. But the thing for which it is remembered is the way it touched the heartstrings of every attendee, proving once and for all that every human, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, could possess the emotional wherewithal to move another human being to tears. This moment of truth at the Mac-Haydn Theatre comes in the second act when Georges defends his long-term-lover to their son and half an hour later when that young man proves himself to be their equal after all as he apologizes to his emotional mother for his earlier behavior and reprises the song, bringing on another small flood of tears in the audience.
It is that song, those moments, that make "La Cage aux Folles" so worthwhile and I do believe that if there was one Jerry Herman song to be saved at the end of the world as we know it, it should be "Look Over There." John Saunders has his finest moment in this show singing that song. He is simple, straightforward, brilliant. Likewise, when Andrew McMath as Jean-Michel reprises it in front of his future in-laws, his beautiful voice and face add another level of poignancy to the song. These moments, coupled with Mama Albin’s rendition of "The Best of Times" make the second act a lustrous evening of theater and Gabe Belyeu’s rendition is as heart-felt as anything I’ve seen this season anywhere. Joined by the glorious voice of Ashley Kelly’s Jacqueline, the number swells to full company and is as rousing an anthem as anything John Phillip Sousa ever composed.
These are the high-points of an otherwise disheartening production. Seeing it at the first performance of a two-week run may have been seeing it at a disadvantage. Nothing is easy or simple in this musical. The Cagelles, the drag chorus of nine, seemed under-rehearsed at times, their bonhomie forced and unreliable. The relationship between Georges and Albin felt distant and disengaged in the first act, then wonderfully presented in Act Two. The actions of Jacob, the butler/maid felt overly arch and remote in Act One, then wonderfully silly and over-the-top in the second half of the show. The rhythm of the play felt awkward and wrong and players seemed to be more players then characters. In essence the first act was wrong and the second act was right.
This could have been first performance jitters or possibly the director just hadn’t gotten things right somehow. In this third show of the Mac’s season, with two well-played musicals before it, there may be something just too odd in this piece for the actors to get right up front. There is a lot of young talent here and I suspect that before this one closes the show will be a much better, much more cohesive one than the one I witnessed. I hope so. "La Cage..." done right provides so much fun.
What do I see as wrong: Albin singing "A Little More Mascara" seemed trapped by his rationale instead of glorying in the transformative powers that a true transmutation can bring to a depressed soul. The jealousy of the Cagelles over ZaZa’s position in the company was reduced to a nagging attitude. There was no romance in the first version of "Song on the Sand" and no anger, no rage, not even a deep disappointment in loved ones in "I Am What I Am."
What do I see as right: "Masculinity" at the top of the second act was the best I’ve ever seen and heard it and for the first time in six productions I understood why Herman wrote the number. Obviously "Look Over There" had me in tears as usual. The final apartment scene was a train-wreck in all the right ways. At least half of Jimm Halliday’s costumes are precious works of art while some of the others are just usable, but the great ones are stellar particularly Albin’s dinner dress in Act Two.
Andrew McMath is a treasure also. His gradual transformation while Albin performs his role as Mom was superb and clean and clear. He turned a selfish, almost hateful character into someone precious and it was obvious why Albin loved him so well. Heather Farney made Mme. Dindon into a very real, very susceptible human being and that was both unexpected and delightful. Elizabeth Boyke as her daughter Anne delivered well in her role.
John Saunders gave his best as Georges and he really delivers on the promise of the part in Act Two making a formerly decent portrayal into a fine one. That unfortunate distance in the first half was hard to understand as he treated his lover/partner/husband/wife Albin with clear disdain and discomfort. But his rallying point and its aftermath saved the night.
Gabe Belyeu’s indifference to much of what happens to him and around him in the first half is similarly difficult to comprehend, but his tenderness and shyness and loveliness in Act Two does as much to justify producing this show as anything Saunders delivers.
The choreography was also a mixed-bag, sometimes easy and graceful and right and at other times weak, or poorly performed. A great Can-Can is one thing, but when the opening number of this show feels ponderous there is a problem with the work. Alisa Claire does some fine things but she hasn’t presented a perfect show.
Erin Kiernan has created sets that are okay but the interminable stage waits while the sets are changed felt excessive, but this should improve with the playing. As usual Andrew Gmoser hits the mark with his lighting design.
You want "La Cage aux Folles" to more than just entertain. You want it to play out in a way that moves you and engages you and amuses you all at the same time. So far this production hasn’t done all of that, but it could. Harvey Fierstein’s latest show, this year’s Tony winner "Kinky Boots," has some of the same problems and it shares in a finale concept in which all the wrong people do all the right things. The new show solves problems like this in a better way than "La Cage..." does, but without the earlier musical the new one wouldn’t have some of its problems licked. "La Cage aux Folles" may not always celebrate its fools, but it certainly justifies them in all of their lovely foolishness.
John Saunders & Gabe Belyeu; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
La Cage aux Folles plays at the Mac-Haydn Theater, located at 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, NY through June 30. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292 or go on line to www.machaydntheatre.org.