Wilmington’s City Theater Company ushers in its 23rd season with lots of glitter for the holidays. But it’s not the usual tinsel on the tree, it’s the fabulous drag fest that is La Cage aux Folles! Based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, the story, which inspired a 1978 European comedy film and a 1996 American remake (The Birdcage), became a Tony Award-winning musical in 1983, with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. CTC’s current effervescent production of the Broadway hit is a hilarious and poignant reminder that its message of ‘love is love is love’ couldn’t be more relevant than it is today, in our current socio-political climate.
The simultaneously over-the-top and tender-hearted song-and-dance extravaganza tells the story of a gay couple—Georges, the proprietor, and Albin (aka ZaZa), the star attraction at their eponymous St. Tropez nightspot–whose straight son Jean-Michel brings his fiancée Anne, and her conservative parents Deputy and Madame Dindon, home for a first meeting. Suffice it to say that the evening doesn’t go as planned. Yet beneath the comical antics and show-stopping numbers, glitzy feathers and glistening sequins, lies a serious examination of the true meaning of love and family, identity and acceptance.
An effulgent cast of thirteen, in eye-popping attire by Rob Paluso, brings the eccentric characters to life. In the leads are Paul McElwee as the conflicted Georges, who wants to, but knows he can’t, please both his long-time partner and his anxious son; and Patrick O’Hara, who is heartbreaking and triumphant as the timorous Albin and his more flamboyant alter-ego ZaZa (as expressed in “A Little More Mascara”), making painful sacrifices for the men he loves. Both bring three-dimensionality to their roles in delightfully humorous and sensitive performances, with believable interactions of romance and bickering that define their relationship (and most relationships, whether gay or straight). Their duets of “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand” provide loving counterpoints to the outrageously funny “Masculinity” (on teaching Albin how to act ‘straight.’)
Zachary J. Chiero plays Jean-Michel, who expresses in strong vocals the love he feels for his girlfriend (“With Anne on My Arm”), sweetly played by Grace Tarves, and the mistake he made in denying Aldin (“Look over There (Reprise)”), out of his fear of being rejected by the Dindons (Mary Catherine Kelley and Greg Tigani, who are appropriately stodgy and reactionary ‘turkeys’), until the tables are turned on them by the clever restaurateur Jacqueline (Kerry Kristine McElrone, portraying her character with a heavy French accent and a provocative attitude).
Of course the high energy of the show comes from the dazzling troupe of drag queens known as Les Cagelles, fully inhabited with no-holds-barred flair by the terrific William Bryant, Zach DeBevec, Andrew Dean Laino, and Christian Ryan. And then there’s Aldin’s butler (or “maid”), Jacob–a drag star wannabe whose accent and attitude are on a par with Jacqueline’s–played with pizzazz by Adam Pierce Montgomery. Rounding out the ensemble’s gender-bending roles is CTC regular Dylan Geringer, sporting a black mustache and tuxedo. The entire cast contributes wholeheartedly to the rousing anthems “We Are What We Are,” “La Cage aux Folles,” and “The Best of Times,” as the audience sings along and claps.
Set-and-lighting design team Vicki Neal and Richard Kendrick make perfect use of the intimate black box theater at the Opera Delaware Studios, transforming it into a sparkling nightclub with colorful lights and cabaret tables around a runway stage. Director Michael Gray uses the entire space to full advantage, as his cast moves around the audience, on and off the stage, through the aisles, and within inches of us (some of the actors, in full ruffled skirts, even brushed up against me at my stage-side seat). The up-close-and-personal interactions with the cross-dressing characters add to the excitement of the show and recreate the authentic experience of being at a real drag club, as do the cocktails and snacks sold at the bar!
Witty choreography by Dawn Morningstar and Devon Sinclair Fields is executed with physical éclat and comic panache (Les Cagelles’ risqué can-can number, and an extended sequence of in-place cartwheels by DeBevec, are especially thrilling). The sensational ensemble is backed by a live orchestra (Michele M. Ferdinand on piano, George M. Murphy on bass, Steve Smith on trombone, Robert Baronio on trumpet, Barbara Benedett on reeds, and Christopher Tolomeo on percussion), conducted with a buoyant beat by Musical Director Joe Trainor, before a shimmering upstage background of strips of silver.
All of the fun, camp, and extravagance in CTC’s production of La Cage aux Folles, along with its important underlying moral, will have you believing–at least while you’re there in the theater–that “The Best of Times” is now. I know I did!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
La Cage aux Folles plays through Saturday, December 17, 2016, at City Theater Company, performing at The Black Box at Opera Delaware Studios – 4 South Poplar Street, in Wilmington, DE. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 220-8285, or purchase them online.