Stage Door Review

La Cage aux Folles

Sunday, June 2, 2024


music & lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Thom Allison

Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford

May 31-October 26, 2024

“Make this moment last”

The Stratford Festival’s production of La Cage aux Folles is a major success. Set in St. Tropez in 1978 in a gay night club specializing in drag, the show has no shortage of glitz. What makes this production so special is its focus on heart. I’ve seen the musical twice before, including the original Broadway production in 1983. In the present production the singing is better and the acting more finely nuanced. Stratford regulars Steve Ross and Sean Arbuckle as the central male couple give outstanding performances that handily eclipse those I’ve seen.

Most people will know the story of the musical from the original French film of the same title from 1978 or from the American remake The Birdcage from 1996. The musical is based on the play La Cage aux Folles (“The Cage of the Madwomen”) by Jean Poiret from 1973 which is the source of the film adaptations. We meet Georges and Albin, a gay couple who have lived together for more than 24 years. Georges runs the nightclub La Cage aux Folles where Albin under his drag name “Zaza” is its biggest star. The impetus for the plot is that Georges’s 24-year-old son Jean-Michel arrives to say he is getting married to Anne, the girl of his dreams. Jean-Michel was the product of a one-night stand between Georges and an English cabaret star Sybil, who, having no interest in children, gave Jean-Michel to Georges to raise.

The problem is that Anne is the daughter of Edouard Dindon, head of the right-wing Tradition, Family and Morality Party, whose goal is to ban subversive entertainment such as drag shows. Anne doesn’t share her father’s views but M. and Mme Dindon want to meet Jean-Michel’s parents. Jean-Michel thinks Albin is too much of a liability and doesn’t want him to be there with the Dindons. But how can Georges tell Albin, who thinks of himself as Jean-Michel’s mother, that he is not welcome?

Director Thom Allison follows the lead of Terry Johnson’s 2008 London which later opened on Broadway in 2010 and went on tour. Where the original 1983 production featured a chorus of twelve “Cagelles”, Johnson’s production featured only six. Where the original production tried to make the Cagelles and the nightclub seems as glamorous as possible, Johnson’s production took a more realistic view of what gay nightclub in St. Tropez might actually be like. The Cagelles in 2008 were all shapes and sizes and the production values had a slight air of tackiness about them. Johnson also kept the setting in 1978, the date of the original French movie, to explain why Georges and Albin would be wary of public displays of affection.

Allison adopts all of Johnson’s changes including changing Albin’s “butler” from Black to Filipino and dropping all his references to Albin as his “maîtresse”. Allison’s prime addition to Johnson’s changes is to have the show conclude with Georges and Albin’s wedding ceremony and exchange of rings.

The current Stratford production wins out over both the original 1983 production and over the touring production of the 2010 that played Toronto in 2012 by emphasizing two elements they completely lacked. First is that at Stratford both can sing. In 1983 Gene Barry as Georges adopted a diseur style of speaking to the music and holding the occasional note. In 2012 George Hamilton as Georges could not sing at all. At Stratford both Sean Arbuckle as Georges and Steve Ross as Albin have strong baritone voices that put across Herman’s songs better than any recording.

Second is that the Georges and Albin of Arbuckle and Ross have a real rapport, as if they really had shared their lives for more than two decades and already knew the next move either would make in a dispute. In previous productions the couple lacked any chemistry, something that likely made general audiences feel more comfortable but nowadays is essential in understanding the two.

It is wonderful to see that Steve Ross, after 20 seasons at Stratford, has finally been given a leading role. Ross is completely different than the whining, tantrum-throwing Albin of the 1978 movie. Rather Ross promotes the notion that drag performers are not necessarily effeminate when out of drag. Ross seems to take his cue from Albin’s first song “(A Little More) Mascara” which begins with the lines, “Once again I'm a little depressed by the tired old face that I see / Once again it is time to be someone who's anyone other than me”. Thus, drag for Ross’s Albin is an escape from dull reality. The result is that Ross presents Albin as a far more complex character than seen in any of films or the previous productions of the musical.

This approach means that some remarks and one song in particular do not really fit. The song is “Masculinity” where Georges complains about Albin’s feminine gestures and high voice. Since Ross has not demonstrated these characteristics (and just as well), the song seems to be more about Georges’s insecurity not Albin’s affectations. The great virtue of Ross’s performance is that he whisks away all the clichés associated with Albin and portrays him as a strong character for whom drag is an art and form of self-expression. Ross’s performance of the show’s best-known song, “I Am What I Am”, is full of anger that those closest to him would deem him unsuitable to meet other people. Seldom do actor have the chance to reconsider a role so completely but that is exactly what Ross’s great performance achieves.

With quite a different Albin comes quite a different Georges. In this production it is Georges, not Albin, who is the perpetually worried one of the couple. Every bit of new information about Jean-Michel’s marriage, his girlfriend and her parents throws him into a tizzy before he manages to calm himself down. What we see in this Albin and Georges is that each is able to comfort the other, a fact that only strengthens our view of the two as a couple. A Georges who can actually sing, and sing beautifully, gives an immense boost to the show and is another factor in presenting Albin and Georges as equals.

Draining Albin of ultra-effeminacy has had the one unfortunate effect of concentrating this quality in Jacob, Albin’s “butler”. Chris Vergara is a ball of energy and clearly the most flamboyant member of Georges and Albin’s household. Vergara, however, in his boundless enthusiasm, speaks so quickly that much of the humour of his interjections is lost.

In other roles, James Daly is fine Jean-Michel, sporting a high tenor voice that makes “With Anne On My Arm” and the reprise of “Look Over There” real pleasures. Because of Ross’s more serious Albin, Jean-Michel’s objection to him look more like general homophobia than worry about Albin’s specific eccentricities. This makes the moment when Jean-Michel recognizes Albin as his “mother” even more moving than usual.

Juan Chioran is very funny as Edouard Dindon, making him stiff and uncomfortable even before the revelations about Jean-Michel’s parents that make him explode. Sara-Jeanne Hosie, best known in Toronto as the maniacal villain in the last five of Ross Petty’s pantos, is almost unrecognizable as Dindon’s demure wife. We are cheering for her when she joins in the singing of the anthem “The Best Of Times” long before her husband does. Heather Kosik is a pleasure as Jean-Michel’s fiancée Anne. I have always wished that Herman had given the couple more stage time together, especially now since Daly and Kosik sing and dance together so well.

Starr Domingue is a warm presence as the quick-witted Jacqueline. Her singing gives every ensemble she is in a fuller sound. One question is why she alone has a French accent when everyone in the show is meant to be French.

The show is a designer’s dream and David Boechler does not disappoint. He seems to have carefully calculated just how far over the top to take each of Zaza’s gowns and those of Les Cagelles. For added fun Boechler sometimes wittily garbs Zaza as famous icons like Mae West, Shirley Temple and Liza Minelli. Cameron Carver’s choreography is not as hard driven as is Donna Feore’s, but it is exactly right for the intimate size that a cabaret like La Cage aux Folles is meant to be. The six men who make up Les Cagelles (Eric Abel, George Absi, David Ball, Josh Doig, Jordan Goodridge and David Andrew Reid) make a marvellous ensemble, dancing with precision, amazing flexibility and just enough knowing self-humour.

Except for its subject matter, La Cage aux Folles falls in line with the musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age. After all, Jerry Herman wrote classics like Hello, Dolly (1964) and Mame (1966) among other works. This means that the score of La Cage is filled with memorable numbers, varied dance sequences and even a dream sequence. In La Cage Herman gives reprises to various members of the cast, a practice that illustrates how different people share similar feelings.

In 1973 when Jean Poiret’s original play came out, the figure of Edouard Dindon could be regarded as a strictly comic menace. No one would have thought that in 2024 the Dindons of the world would be thriving, and in office and causing harm. Instead, Thom Allison’s production of La Cage aux Folles is a warm, funny, insightful celebration of love and family in their various forms. See it for its uplifting tribute to harmony, both in music and in everyday life.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Sean Arbuckle as Georges, Steve Ross as Albin and Juan Chioran as M. Dindon with members of the company; David Andrew Reid, Eric Abel, Josh Doig, Jordan Goodridge, David Bell and George Absi as Les Cagelles with Sean Arbuckle (centre) as Georges; Steve Ross as Albin playing Zaza; Sean Arbuckle as Georges and James Daly as Jean-Michel. © 2024 David Hou.

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