A pair of Ovation-winning leading men, a sextet of glamorous drag queens, and a dozen or so Jerry Herman show tunes are just three reasons to take a road trip down south to catch San Diego Musical Theatre’s splendid revival of Herman’s and Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles.
Robert J. Townsend and original 1983 Broadway Cast member David Engel share the SDMT stage as French Riviera nightclub manager Georges and the unapologetically flamboyant Albin, the star of George’s drag show and the love of his life.
Based on a 1973 French play of the same name, a pièce de théâtre that spawned a hit French-Italian movie, a pair of sequels, an American film adaptation, and this Broadway musical adaptation, La Cage Aux Folles sets its plot wheels a-turnin’ when George’s twenty-year-old son (the result of his father’s one and only heterosexual one-night fling) announces to Papa his impending nuptials to the daughter of a right-wing, anti-gay politician.
As if this horrific news weren’t already enough, young Jean-Michel is insistent that his surrogate “Mom” Albin not be present when Anne and her parents come to meet their daughter’s fiancé’s family.
Not surprisingly, this causes considerable ruffling of plumes (and not just those on Zaza’s feathered boas).
With one catchy Herman tune after another (including the sing-along-ready “The Best Of Times” and the gay anthem “I Am What I Am”), a hilarious book by gay icon Fierstein, and a message of love and acceptance still as relevant in 2015, La Cage Aux Folles is Broadway musical entertainment at its best.
Twice brought back to The Great White Way, it is La Cage’s 2010 (and most recent) revival version that San Diego Musical Theatre brings to fabulous life under the razor-sharp direction of Larry Raben, with revival cast Cagelle Karl Warden bringing his own distinctive flair to La Cage’s choreography along with one spangly costume after another based on Matthew Wright’s Tony-nominated Broadway revival creations.
Despite a trimmed-down cast (the Broadway original featured thirty, the 2004 revival twenty, and SDMT a “mere” eighteen), this somewhat miniaturized West End-to-Broadway transfer, winner of both the Olivier award and the Tony as Best Musical Revival, does not stint in entertainment value, not with a farcical storyline as tangy as ever, a crackerjack cast and creative team bringing it to bubbly life on the historic 1913 Spreckels Theatre stage, glitzy costumes, over-the-top wigs, and a bunch of Broadway Show Tunes as only Jerry Herman can write them.
Having originated the role of Cagelle Hanna From Hamburg back in ’83 and scored an Ovation Award nomination for his star turn as Albin/Zaza in Musical Theatre West’s 2003 revival, six-time Ovation winner Engel could not be more dazzling, whether in tantrum mode or merely pouting to get his own way or attempting in vain for even a smidgenette of “Masculinity” or entertaining La Cage-goers in French chanteuse mode. As for the Act One closer (and La Cage classic), has anyone sung “I Am What I Am” as gut-wrenchingly, standing-ovation-worthily as Engel?
Agelessly boy-next-door handsome Townsend, himself an Ovation Award-winning leading man, could not make for a more appealing, golden-throated Georges to Engel’s Albin, the duo’s long friendship adding an authenticity to George and Albin’s decades-long love that cannot be faked.
San Diego treasure James Vasquez threatens to steal every single scene he’s in as Jacob, George and Albin’s Cagelle-wannabe butler-turned-maid.
Up-and-comer Bren Thor Johnson aces his biggest role to date, that of George and Albin’s ungrateful prick of a son Jean-Michelle, and if J-M’s redeeming eleventh hour conversion to filial love, gratitude, and respect seems a bit out of the blue, it’s to charmer Johnson’s credit that we believe it.
UCLA grad Ashley Ruth Jones makes for a lovely Anne, singing and dancing with both beauty and grace.
Terrific supporting turns are rendered by Christine Hewitt as restauranteuse Jacqueline, Randall Eames as injury-prone La Cage stage manager Francis (who wouldn’t be nearly so injury-prone without whip-cracking Hanna From Hamburg as his lover) and Etienne, David Mitchum Brown as ultra-conservative Edouard Dindon and café co-owner Monsieur Renaud, and Debra Wanger as Madames Dindon and Renaud.
Meriting performance kudos as well are understudy Siri Hafsø (Babette and Colette) and Bryan Banville as Tabarro and Waiter.
Last but absolutely positively not least are the leggy, gym-buff glamazons known as Les Cagelles brought to sexy, limber, utterly fabulous life by Scott Frausto as Phaedra, Donny Gersonde as Hanna, Luke H. Jacobs as Chantal, Alex Sanchez as Bitelle, Taylor Shubert as Angelique, and Ala Tiatia as Mercedes, each one given her own distinct personality and style by six of SoCal’s most gifted triple-threats.
Chorographer Warden follows Moonlight Stage’s just-closed Big Fish with another award-worthy dance-design turn, creating one amazingly athletic number after another for Les Cagelles to perform, including one particular dazzler featuring all six cavorting all over a gigantic gilded cage.
Musical director Don Le Master conducts La Cage’s pitch-perfect onstage orchestra, the production’s expert voice-and-instrument mix provided by sound designer Kevin Anthenill.
Design kudos for this spiffy-looking revival are shared by Bret Young and David Medina (scenic design), Michael Von Hoffman (lighting design), Janet Pitcher (costume coordinator), and Medina (property master), with Danielle Griffith meriting an extra round of applause for her wig and makeup designs, particularly those of the glamorous, glitzy Les Cagelles.
Craig Campbell is stage manager.
It’s been eleven long years since Musical Theatre West revived La Cage Aux Folles, just one more reason to head down to San Diego to catch this once-in-a-decade production.
In the immortal words of Cole Porter, “C’est Magnifique!”
Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego.
September 27, 2015
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography