Monday, February 09, 2015

With Impressive, Intimate Staging, La Cage Aux Folles Is What It Is ...and Then Some -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

La Cage Aux Folles
Marriott Theatre, Linconshire, IL
Thru March 22

I have now seen La Cage Aux Folles live on stage 3 times, all coming in the past 7 years.

Each time I have very much enjoyed it, with several Jerry Herman songs being terrific and the story of a gay couple--Georges, who owns a nightclub featuring lively dance performances in drag, and Albin, who is the star attraction--making for a show that is fun, humorous, vibrant, sweet, poignant and much more.

But both in 2008 at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN, and 2011 in downtown Chicago on the national tour of a Broadway revival, I rated La Cage @@@@ out of 5.

Though this means I thought it--the particular productions, but at the time, the material itself--was excellent, I perceived it a step below the very best musicals ever created.

I probably still do, but the current staging at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire elevated my appreciation another step higher.

Photo credit on all: Mark Campbell
Gene Weygandt, who has been superb each of the numerous times I've seen him onstage in the Chicago area--across a nice variety of musical roles--is especially terrific here, imbuing Albin with a resonant pathos beneath the fancy gowns.

His rendition of the show's renowned gay anthem, "I Am What I Am" is spot-on, with just the right amount of pride, hurt and indignation.

It comes at the end of Act I, after Georges has shared that his son, Jean-Michel--whom Albin has mothered for 20-some years--has asked that Albin makes himself scarce when the uber-conservative parents of his fiancé Anne come to visit.

As Georges, David Hess is also excellent, with his love for Albin apparent but well-balanced with his role as impresario and in his initial acquiescence to Jean-Michel, whose insensitive demands he tries to heed, also out of love.

Brian Bohr plays Jean-Michel with a bit more brattiness than may be necessary, but there is nothing really deficient in his doing so, and his singing is strong on "With Anne on My Arm."

In addition to the strong performances--including by Joseph Anthony Byrd as Albin's assistant Jacob, Elizabeth Telford as Anne, Fred Zimmerman as her father, Susan Moniz as Jacqueline, a local restauranteur, and by all "Les Cagelles" who dance in drag at the club that gives the show its title--what helps to make this production especially enjoyable is the staging at Marriott's in-the-round theater, just 9 rows deep on each side.

I was in the 4th row, and much more so than from the balcony of the Bank of America Theatre downtown, I felt like I was at La Cage Aux Folles--the nightclub--abetted by Georges and the "girls" interacting with audience members.

Such intimacy also enhanced my appreciation for the nuances with which Weygandt and Hess imbue their characters, and Melissa Zaremba's choreography plays well to all sides of the stage.

La Cage has to be one of the most fun shows for a costume designer to work on, and longtime Marriott Theatre collaborator Nancy Missimi certainly has created a vibrant array of dresses, robes and more.

Though I've always loved the highlights of Jerry Herman's score--"I Am What I Am," "We Are What We Are," "The Best of Times," "With Anne on My Arm"--I also found myself better savoring many other numbers, including "A Little More Mascara," "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There."

So although I didn't know if I really needed to see La Cage Aux Folles yet again, director Joe Leonardo's stellar production makes me glad I did.

And maybe Marriott's loyal crowds born from the biggest subscription base in the country would have been just as receptive to this gay-themed, drag queen musical closer to its creation in 1983, but that in 2015 the audience universally bestowed a standing ovation--and laughed heartily throughout--was also gratifying to behold.

Updated in 2010 for a Broadway revival, Harvey Fierstein's book is both poignant and terrifically funny.

(Just on a personal note, I liked noting that the last 3 musicals I've seen on stage were either written by Fierstein--who also penned the book for the recent Newsies--or originally directed on Broadway by Arthur Laurents, who famously helmed West Side Story in 1957 in addition to La Cage years later.)

So whether you've previously seen La Cage Aux Folles or never have, with Marriott Theatre's joyful up-close rendition that makes you feel you're on the French Rivera--rather than Lincolnshire in the heart of winter...

"The best of times is now."

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