Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret (which also inspired the 1978 French film and the American movie The Birdcage), the plot of the show is as follows: Jean-Michel, the son of gay drag club owner Georges, plans to get married to Anne, the daughter of a right wing, ultra conservative politician. Father and son conspire against the boy's other father Albin, who is the star drag queen "Zaza" at the club, to ensure his flamboyant personality won't intrude, and they invite the boy's biological mother instead to portray some sense of normalcy in their "family." However, when the boy's mother isn't able to make the meeting of the two families, Albin takes matters into his own hands in order for the marriage to go forward, since Anne's parents insist on meeting both of Jean-Michel's parents. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and hilarity ensues.
While the show is much less shocking now than when it first premiered (it was the first big musical with a gay couple at the center), the central theme of acceptance still has relevance. Jerry Herman's songs are still vibrant, with the anthems "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times," and the ballads "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There," still exceptionally moving. Harvey Fierstein's book is succinct, fast paced but full of emotion, pathos, and many laugh out loud moments.
As much as I've enjoyed the large scale grandeur of previous productions of this show that I've seen, including the original Broadway production, presenting the story on a somewhat smaller scale, with a smaller cast in a smaller theatre, allows more focus to be placed on the main characters and less on the ensemble, sets, and costumes. Sometimes less is actually more. The latest Broadway revival of the show did things on a smaller scale, and the Fountain Hills production, with their small, intimate space, is more in line with that version. Sure, the "La Cage aux Folles" nightclub musical sequences may not have as much glitz and glamor as those in a larger production, but the intimacy of the Fountain Hills stage allows a deeper connection with the characters.
Director Peter J. Hill gets just about everything right with this production. He manages to make almost every comic moment zing, but also ensures that the emotional heart at the center of the characters beats strong. He has cast four talented men in the main roles, plus a fun group of actors to play the kooky ensemble and the wild "Cagelles" dancers. As Georges and Albin, Roger Prenger and Patrick Russo form a realistic duo. Their constant bickering, expressions, and gestures make you believe that they have been together for over 20 years. Russo is simply sensational as Albin. He brings a forcefulness to the character that allows us to see how he is firm and set in his ways yet, with appropriate gestures and glances, we see how vulnerable he is as well, especially once he discovers the plan that Georges and Jean-Michel have concocted. He runs the gamut of emotions and is at times strong and at other times weak, campy at times yet also deeply serious. Russo has a lovely stage presence and singing voice and, during Zaza's performance numbers, he even gets to show off his caricature skills channeling gay icons such as Bette Davis and Liza Minnelli. Prenger makes for a charming host of the club and brings a stern yet loving tenderness to the relationship with Russo's Albin. Both Prenger and Russo have a firm emotional connection with each other and the other actors in the show.
As the mostly self-absorbed son Jean-Michel, Sky Donovan is appealing, with a sweet demeanor. Even though Jean-Michel implores his father to pretend to be "normal" for just the one night, and to get Albin out of the house, the emotional pleas never come across as insulting. Also, the body language between Donovan and his two dads is extremely realistic. With appropriate touching, firm glances, and expressions that one would naturally see between a young man in his 20s and the two men who raised him. The way Russo's Albin looks at Jean-Michel, first with love through anger that eventually turns into pure motherly love, is heartbreaking, especially when we see similar looks from Jean-Michel to Albin in the second act.
With comical looks and gestures and a rough line delivery that adds even more humor to the part, Mark Burkett is hilarious as the couple's "maid" Jacob. The rest of the ensemble are fine, with a few of the Cagelles stand-outs in their portrayals. Bill Bennett is sweet and funny as the stage manager who is in an interesting relationship with one of the dancers in the show.
Hill also designed the set and lighting, crafting an effective set that represents the home for Georges and Albin and, with just a few scrims, swiftly moves from one scene to the next. However, the production itself is scrappy, and a little rough around the edges, with some of the drag queens out of sync during the dance sequences and projecting an occasional "deer caught in the headlights" expression. I'm not sure if this is intentional, but these moments work in the show's favor as they add even more humor to those scenes and achieve the feeling that the "La Cage" nightclub, while a successful club in the show, is also very bare bones. Mickey Courtney's costumes are knock-outs, accented by Patsy Johnson and MaryBeth Ingram's elaborate hair and make-up creations.
Just a few small quibbles: there is a line in the show that says that Albin is more than 10 years older than Georges, but Russo and Prenger appear to be very close in age, and possibly Prenger is actually older than Russo. Also, while the show is set in France, there are minimal attempts for anyone to have a French accent.
Naughty, witty and full of heart, I highly recommend a visit to the wacky, seedy but very loving drag nightclub and the endearing production of La Cage aux Folles at Fountain Hills Theater.
Fountain Hills Theater's production of La Cage aux Folles runs through February 14th, 2016, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Director/Set and Light Design: Peter J. Hill