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FLASHY WITH HEART: ‘La Cage aux Folles’ tells a story of love and family

The cast of ‘La Cage aux Folles’ bring their A-game in Opera House’s season-opener of 2020. Photo by Erik Maasch Photogrpahy

 

Opera House Theatre Company is throwing a party for 2020. To welcome the new year in style, they have brought to the main stage of Thalian Hall a fabulous and sequin-studded production of Harvey Firestein and Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles.” Directed and choreographed by Ray Kennedy, with co-choreography by Tina Leak, the stage spectacular is a delight from the first note the band plays (overseen by Brian Whitted), until the moment the curtain comes down at the end. In short, it’s a wonderful, fun-filled, exciting night of theatrical exuberance.

Set in the 1970s on the French Riviera, the story revolves around the La Cage aux Folles nightclub and the lives of the performers who work there. Master of Ceremonies and owner of the nightclub, Georges (Richard White) welcomes the audience. He is elegance personified and has a voice so seductive it is hard not to get lost in his velvety words (just imagine if Pierce Brosnan opened a night club after he retired from life as James Bond). So the audience is on notice: Buckle up—it’s going to be a magical evening.

Georges (Richard White) introduces us to Les Cagelles, his ensemble of dancers—in drag, of course, as this is a drag club: Blaine Mower, Cannon Starnes, Jason Aycock, Andy Edelman, Mattson Williams, Philip McGee, and Asa Jordan. They are as dangerous as they are beautiful—and even more entertaining (“We Are What We Are”). Les Cagelles are a group of incredibly talented dancers and singers, but they are the warm-up act for the show’s star attraction, currently upstairs in her apartment.

Running behind is Zaza (Jeff Phillips), the star of La Cage aux Folles—though, in day-to-day life, with her husband Georges, she goes by Albin. Her maid, Jacob (Cullen Moss), would be happy to go on in Zaza’s place, but she’d hate to let down her audience (“A Little More Mascara”). Phillips delivers one of the most convincing and nuanced journeys I have ever witnessed with him onstage. He’s always fun to watch, and sings wonderfully and dances beautifully. There is something about the relationship between Georges and Albin that speaks to Phillips deeply because he gives layers and intensity to Albin/Zaza that belie the sequins and catty quibbling. Though I enjoy his singing tremendously, what sells his performance are moments in between. Bravo!

While Zaza is busy onstage, Georges has a private meeting in the apartment with their son, Jean-Michel (Mathis Turner). Jean-Michel is 24, handsome, charming, and as self-involved and certain as everything that age implies. He has also decided to marry a young lady he met on vacation named Anne (Sydney Jones). Announcing an engagement to a parent is always a little weird and emotional, but this one is like “Romeo and Juliet” with a twist:

Georges owns one of the most successful drag clubs on the Riviera. Anne’s father (Tony Rivenbark) is a right-wing politician, making a name for himself by trying to close down the drag clubs in the Riviera. Instead of running off to elope, the young couple are planning to introduce the two families prior to the wedding. Jean-Michel wants to present an entirely fictitious version of his home life. He hopes to banish Albin in favor of his birth mother to stay with Georges for a few days.

All the exuberance, glamour, camp and sequins (did I mention sequins?) aside, this show, at its heart, is about what every family with a step-parent goes through: What defines the parent/child relationship? Who is a “real” parent? At what point does the self-centered resentment of adolescence have an opportunity to give way to a little humility and gratitude? It is a story beautifully told by a talented cast.

(L. to r.) Sydney Jones, Mathis Turner, Jeff Phillips, Richard White and Cullen Moss star in La Cage aux Folles, opening December 30. Photo by Erik Maasch Photography

 

As Georges points out to Jean-Michel, he has never wanted for anything: private schools, cars, cash, and, frankly, two loving parents who sacrificed for his happiness. Wasn’t that enough? All this in order to impress strangers? The palpable pain on White’s face as the story unfolds is heartbreaking. His beautiful voice aside, watching him wrestle with his love for his son and devotion to Albin is deeply affecting.

While Jean-Michel is busy rewriting and rearranging every detail of their lives to fit an impossible story, the show must go on at La Cage aux Folles. Backstage life is still filled with drama and excitement, and not just for the stage manager, Francis (Jordan Wolfe). Georges and Albin’s butler/maid is desperate to be in the show and has a host of schemes to make his star-struck aspirations come true. Now, it would seem pretty impossible for any one performer to upstage Zaza or Les Cagelles, but somehow Cullen Moss manages to do exactly that. There are so many remarkable and memorable performances throughout the night, but the sheer volume—physically and verbally—of Moss and his genuine love for dramatic flair will keep the audience giggling quietly for days after the show’s end.

In addition, Georges and Albin’s neighbor, Jaqueline (Susan Powell)—owner of the swankiest and most exclusive restaurant in St. Tropez—bobs in and out of their lives, sending them patrons (and vice-versa). The Renauds (Jay Zadeh and Lauren Maasch), who own the café down the street, try to help Albin and Georges through tough decisions they are facing as a couple (“Masculinity”). And nobody is quite prepared for the Dindons when the arrive. Madame (Suellen Yates) is a more compliant version of Nancy Regan and Rivenbark’s Dindon reminds me of a slightly kinder and possibly misguided version of Mike Pence (not so much in voice but in body language). When things come to head for them, it is hard not to laugh at just the lengths they will go.

Juli Harvey must have had fun costuming the show. If she didn’t, it would be a real shame because, visually, it is stunning and covered in sequins—lots of sequins. The floor-length gold coat Zaza wears in Act 1 almost deserves its own program credit. Just the bird costumes for Les Cagelles are mesmerizing, and they have multiple changes in the same number! Plus, the finale costumes are a jigsaw puzzle of visual delight and intricacy.

Terry Collins’ set is fabulous—and I don’t just mean the one for the nightclub. The Renaud’s café is detailed and charming. But the transformation the apartment goes through, from gay art collectors to what the show calls “Monastic,” yet tends toward “cathedral lite,” must be seen to be understood.

Aaron Willings paints the details on with a lighting design that embraces all the glamour of the show—starting with the use of two follow spots to catch the raising of the chandelier during the prelude. The resulting silhouettes are the first clue we are on an elegant journey that will surprise and thrill us. At every turn, he continues to reiterate that message.

These are difficult times we are in, but as Georges and Albin’s story reminds: Love is love, no matter what packaging it comes in. Theirs happens to be wrapped in sparkles and mascara. They enjoy this life they have built for each other and their friends, and perhaps that is one of most generous gifts they can share with us. This entire cast pulls out all the stops in this magnificent show. It’s a fabulous night—the crème de la crème of community theatre!

“La Cage aux Folles” will continue the next two weekends through January 18, at 7:30 p.m., except for Sunday matinees, 3 p.m., and a Saturday matinee, 3 p.m., on January 18. Tickets are $25-$32 at thalianhall.org.

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