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Chicago by John Olson

La Cage aux Folles
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's reviews The Piano Lesson and The History Boys

La Cage aux Folles
Galen Schloming, Caren Ott, Ryan Lanning, Kevin Bishop, Jamed Nedrud and
Stephane Duret

They haven't billed it as such, but Bohemian has timed their production of La Cage aux Folles to coincide with Pride Month and, though the content seems politically quite tame today, the show's importance to the Gay Rights movement should rightfully be noted. When it first opened on Broadway in 1984, it was a monster hit, running over four years. When one remembers there had never even been an openly gay character in a Broadway musical until 1970 (in Applause), this represents progress. Though La Cage has been mainstream for some time—the suburban Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire did it 10 years ago as did the Theater at the Center in northwest Indiana last year—it's fair to acknowledge its role in gay history.

That role has less to do with its success, though, than the piece's ability to entertain. The show is downscaled a bit to fit the space at the Theatre Building. There are fewer Cagelles and some of the St. Tropez townspeople are cut, but the production boasts two quite solid leading men, very funny supporting performances and a chorus of multi-talented Cagelles that deliver as song and dance performers as well as convincing drag artists.

Kevin Bishop and Michael Kingston, who have done some fine work in supporting roles on other off-Loop musicals, have the leads of Albin and Georges, star performer and owner of the titular St. Tropez nightclub. Though Bishop and Kingston look a little young for their roles, they pull them off quite capably. Bishop, who got a little practice for the part as a drag Cinderella's stepmother recently in Quest's Into the Woods, is a sympathetic Albin—intensely insecure anywhere other than on stage as drag queen ZaZa—vulnerable but with a big heart and ready to try just about anything if his family needs it. Kingston as Georges is a steadying foil for Albin and both have big full, voices that serve the Jerry Herman ballads and anthems nicely.

So many of the laughs in this show come from the supporting characters, and first among them here is Ryan Guhde, who fearlessly camps it up as the houseboy Jacob. He's helped immensely by his outrageous costumes, designed by Michelle Julazedeh and Stefin Seber. Particularly over-the-top is the Louis XIV getup he wears while serving hors d'oeuvres to the prospective in-laws unaware their daughter will be marrying the adoptive son of a drag performer. Those parents—a conservative family values politician and his wife are played just satirically enough by Thomas M. Shea and Nancy Greco. As the son fathered by Georges in a brief lapse into heterosexuality, Patrick Tierney has a mildly petulant air that makes believable his request to hide Albin from the in-laws and a boyish charm that keeps him likable enough to redeem himself. Kristine Burdi is sweet in the underdeveloped role of his intended, Anne, and Maxwell Burnham nicely plays the exasperated stage manager as well as filling some other smaller roles.

Harvey Fierstein's book works best in the French-farcical second act—as Albin first tries to pass as a straight uncle, and nearly succeeds in convincing the in-laws that he is the son's birth mother. His plot is inadvertently foiled by restaurateur neighbor Jacqueline, played quite broadly as a self-absorbed semi-celebrity by Debbie DiVerde. Director Stephen M. Genovese has guided his performers well in getting their performances to places that find the humor in their absurdities, yet keep them sympathetic enough to deliver the good feelings and upbeat tone the piece intends.

A reduced chorus of five Cagelles (four men and one woman) do yeoman's work as believable drag performers, singing and dancing (that includes tap) and serving as men of St. Tropez for the "Masculinity" number. They're given spectacular costumes that stand out against Genovese's very pink, minimal set that serves as the club's stage, Albin and Georges' home and Jacqueline's restaurant.

Music director Nick Sula guides his singers and a four-piece orchestra through Jerry Herman's catchy score effectively, especially as the entire cast perform "The Best of Times," the feel-good anthem one can easily picture having been sung by Edith Piaf. The number gets the audience nearly up on their feet with its infectious feel-good spirit. This production of La Cage aux Folles, with its gentle affirmation of family values of all types, couldn't be better timed in the wake of recent victories for proponents of gay marriage and this year's Gay Pride celebrations.

La Cage aux Folles will be performed Thursdays through Sundays to July 11, 2009 at the Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. For tickets, call the box office at 773-327-5252, or Ticketmaster at 312-423-6612.


Photo: Brandon Dahlquist

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-- John Olson



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