By David Gardette
Based on the 1973 French farce of the same name, La Cage Aux Folles (The Cage of Mad Women), premiered on Broadway in 1983 and enjoyed a hit four-year run, culminating in 6 Tony Awards. With numerous revivals, International stagings, more awards and spawning the hit movie The Birdcage, breaking the barrier for gay representation on stage is perhaps its greatest success.
With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, we are welcomed into the flamboyant world of La Cage Aux Folles cabaret club. Here we meet club owner and MC Georges and longtime partner Albin, who as ZaZa, is also the drag star of La Cage. George’s son Jean-Michel, a product of a confused liaison between Georges and club dancer Sybil, announces his intention to marry Anne, whose father leads the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. With an upcoming meeting between the two families imminent and fearing his future parents in law disapproval, Jean-Michel lies to his fiancé telling her his father is a retired French Diplomat and pleads with Georges to masculinise the house and persuade Albin to make himself and his flamboyant ways scarce. As can be expected, the whole rouse comes undone and in true musical farce style.
Celebrating its 40th Anniversary, La Cage is entertaining albeit dated. The plot that sat well in the 80’s, doesn’t really stand up too well today. What was groundbreaking and important in 1983, is not so groundbreaking now — so it begs the question — is La Cage even still relevant?
Originally lavish in its presentation this production has been whittled back to set pieces and brilliant red curtains, which is unfortunately underwhelming and not the pageantry one expects for such a high camp romp. Jozef Kodas’ costumes, in particular the Les Cagelles troupe, and some rich and clever lighting design by Phoebe Pilcher, adds some much-needed sparkle and lustre.
Michael Cormick hits the right tone as the debonair Georges, commanding the scenes with wonderful presence and vocals and as one of Australia’s leading cabaret artists, Paul Capsis relishes the role of the colourful Albin/Zaza. Noah Mullins as Georges son Jean-Michel and Genevieve Kingsford as his fiancé Anne have some sweet comedic moments, leaping on and offstage as if in a perpetual ballet dream sequence. Peter Phelps is unpleasantly bombastic as Anne’s father, Edouard Dindon and Genevieve Morris is a treat as his long-suffering wife Marie. La Cage also sees the return to the stage of Music Theatre icon Debra Byrne as Jacqueline.
But the standouts of this production are the Les Cagelles, the seven drag queens of La Cage. With slick choreography by Veronica Beattie George, their ensemble numbers are particularly impressive.
This is a deceptively difficult musical. The director has the unenviable task of navigating that fine line of incorporating big comedy into something so poignant and with so much heart but unfortunately this production fell short on the latter.
La Cages Aux Folles plays at the Arts Centre until November 19.
Image: John McRae