Saturday, July 14, 2012

Celebrate The Best of Times with La Cage Aux Folles

George Hamilton. Photos by Paul Kolnik

Cue the wind machine and dust off your sequins, the lean and leggy residents of La Cage Aux Folles are living large and celebrating the best of times in Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s Tony Award-winning musical now playing at the Pantages Theatre. In its three iterations on Broadway it successfully danced off with a total of 11 Tony Awards, 6 for the original in 1984 (including Best Musical), followed by 2 more in 2005 and another 3 in 2010, each subsequent time adding the honor of Best Revival to its trophy case. Clearly, the musical’s themes of acceptance, and what it means to be a family, resonated with audiences in the 80s and they still do today as the debate over same sex marriage and equal rights for all continues.

With a sparkling ‘Bon soir’ and a smile, Georges (the ever-charming and eternally handsome George Hamilton) welcomes the audience to his nightclub. It is the envy of the cabaret, the jewel of the Riviera; it is La Cage Aux Folles, where his longtime partner, Albin (Christopher Sieber) headlines in drag as the much-loved star, Zaza.

In the terrific opening number, “We Are What We Are,” six fabulous showgirls who are Zaza’s back-up performers, Les Cagelles, are revealed in silhouette. They pose; they flit; they glitter like birds of paradise, while breezily back flipping through Lynne Page’s athletic choreography.

More than just a chorus line, these ebullient drama queens are the life blood of La Cage in all its extravagant glory and include Matt Anctil (Angelique), Logan Keslar (Bitelle), Donald C. Shorter, Jr. (Chantal), Mark Roland (Hanna), Terry Lavell (Mercedes), and Trevor Downey (Phaedra).

Whether they are comically dancing and kicking oversized beach balls into the audience or executing an intricate pole dance draped over the sides of a colossal bird cage, they are a marvel only outdone by Christopher Sieber’s performance as Albin.

The comfortable life that Georges and Albin have built over the years is put to the test by Georges' ungrateful son (from a one night stand), Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney) when he announces he is bringing his fiancée's ultra-conservative parents home to meet his father and long absent bio-mom. The kicker is that he wants Albin gone for the night because he is embarrassed by Albin’s flamboyant personality and afraid Anne’s parents will find out his own parents run a drag club. It’s especially cruel because Albin is the only ‘mother’ Jean-Michel has ever known and has given up much over the years to create a loving home for the three of them.

Christopher Sieber
Jean-Michel still has a lot of growing up to do and since he’s not man enough to tell Albin himself, the task falls reluctantly to Georges, who spends Act I looking for a way to break it to him as softly as he can. Of course, news like that couldn’t possibly be well-received, but rather than fall to pieces in the moment, Albin directs his hurt and anger into a searing, showstopper of an Act I finale, “I Am What I Am.”

Standing onstage in the vulnerability of his truth and a to-die-for sequined gown, Sieber viscerally connects with the lyric of the song and moves the audience to tears with his defiant refusal to apologize for who he is. And it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, that’s an anthem for us all. The triumphant 4-minute emotional journey brings thunderous applause and rewards a stunning performance you'll never forget.

Though Hamilton doesn’t have the same level of vocal ability, it really doesn’t matter. What he lacks as a singer he more than makes up for in charm. He’s a film and television personality first and foremost, and we go into it knowing that he’s lovely to look at and delightful to watch, but the heavy lifting will be done by the gypsies and musical theatre veterans surrounding him. He sticks to what he does best, winning the audience with his charisma and appealing joie de vivre.

La Cage’s nightclub receives some vividly rendered flourishes by set designer Tim Shortall. Two of the most memorable are its ‘ooh la la' corseted curtain and dramatic sky-high bird cage. Matthew Wright’s costumes are a drag queen’s dream, with enough sequins, glitter, feathers, and boning to make you feel like you’ve settled into a night spot in St. Tropez, albeit one further up the strip. Nick Richings’ dramatic lighting makes the illusion complete.

It's a simple story about the family we create and the love we dare to share, sealed with healthy doses of humor and heart that make La Cage Aux Folles such a continuing success with audiences. See it at the Pantages through July 22. www.BroadwayLA.org for tickets.   

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