If you have trouble believing a 1980s drag-queen caper is relevant in today’s world, go see “La Cage aux Folles” at Atlanta’s Out Front Theatre.
Back when Saint-Tropez night-club owner Georges and his pouty star diva, Albin, first seeped into the pop-culture consciousness, it may have seemed unusual for a same-sex couple to raise a child, or for the lines of gender identity to be so fluid. Not anymore. (See the “he/him” and “she/her” designations after the names in the Out Front playbill.)
After all these years, the 1983 Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics), based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, feels more timely and instructional than ever.
To be sure, the chorus line of transvestites is outrageously done up in sequins, feathers and lace. Indeed, Albin (played to the hilt by the towering and deliciously expressive Clint Clark-Duke) remains a broad stereotype: a man disguised as an old-fashioned leading lady who can belt out a song with the charisma and incandescence of Mama Rose or Dolly Levi. And Jacob (Joe Arnotti), Georges and Albin’s housemaid and wanna-be “La Cage aux Folles” showgirl, is a figure of dizzy fun and tomfoolery.
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But when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (Aaron Schilling), who was raised by Albin in the role of a surrogate mother, decides to introduce his fiancée and future in-laws to his unconventional parents, all the shame of being a cross-dressing man rains down on Albin, who is summarily dismissed and rejected. Jean-Michel’s birth mother is summoned to save the day. But ultimately, Albin will have his say. He is what he is, after all, to paraphrase “I Am What I Am,” the defining anthem of “La Cage.”
Directed by Out Front founder and producing director Paul Conroy, choreographed by Jordan Keyon Moncrief, and costumed to a fare-thee-well by designer Jay Reynolds, “La Cage” is a giddy bonbon with an enduring message about the necessity of being true to yourself and the elastic nature of family.
The home that Georges (Tony Hayes) and Albin make for Jean-Michel is surely as legit as the one created by one Edouard Dindon (Robert Wayne), the ultra-conservative leader of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, and his rather daffy wife, Marie (Marcie Millard). The dowdy Dindons happen to be the parents of Jean-Michel’s intended, Anne (Melanie Sheahan). The Dindons seem to step in from another age — or comic book. They are textbook villains in a good-versus-evil fairy tale, where the boy, after some distress, eventually gets the girl.
As cute as this show can be, it is not flawless, and it does drag on.
From time to time, it can be hard to hear an actor (Hayes, for instance) speak over the stage hustle-and-bustle, the singing and dancing, the music, the orchestra. And when the company is hoofing and strutting, you may have the feeling you’re watching a community-theater production, rather than a professional one. Or is that intentional? This is a rag-tag group of men in high-heels and flamboyant outfits, performing at a louche French night club. You were expecting the Radio City Rockettes?
While some of the performances can be on the flimsy side, Clark-Duke is hysterical as Albin, a drama queen extraordinaire, reminiscent of Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis in their scenery-chewing prime. And Arnotti seems to have fluttered (or should I say “lurched”?) in from a Shakespeare farce. He’s a terrific, utterly uncontainable physical comedian. Vallea E. Woodbury, as the owner of the posh restaurant where the shoe finally drops, is wonderful, too. Ces soirées-là! (Oh, what a night!)
Putting on a show of this scale (16 actors, eight musicians, four designers) is not a small or inexpensive task. Yet Out Front pulls it off, presenting a grand-scale spectacle on a small stage, with sass, tenderness and a bit of meaningful social commentary. As “the first Broadway musical ever to give center stage to a homosexual love affair” (according to the New York Times’ Frank Rich in his review), “La Cage” was ahead of the times. At long last, it has metamorphosed into the beautiful bird it was meant to be.
“La Cage aux Folles”
8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 9. Also, 8 p.m. Nov. 4. $15-$25. Out Front Theatre, 999 Brady Ave. NW, Atlanta. 404-448-2755, outfronttheatre.com.
Bottom line: It’s a hoot
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