By Lynn Venhaus
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic enhancements, it’s endearing.
In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.
Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically, he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.
When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’ lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.
The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’ Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.
Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.
It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now, people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore, “La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.
As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.
But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined by the confident directors.
Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.
Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen, both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy, cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.
Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.
Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky – the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was much more assertive.
The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.
As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is impressive.
When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.
Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a standout.
Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”
As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are gleeful as real accomplished showmen.
Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).
As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by not relying on superficial stereotypes.
Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.
Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.
Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional – he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.
Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.
Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.
Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz – a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s expert sound design is consistently good.
There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.
None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.
New Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com