Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Arizona Broadway Theatre's production is lavish and lovely, with leads that deliver moving performances and direction that doesn't shortchange the emotional pull of the comical but heartfelt story about family. It's a show that is still relevant, with themes, situations and characters anyone can relate to.
Herman and Fierstein based their musical 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 centers on the story of a gay couple, one of whom is the star of the drag queen night club they own. Jean-Michel, the son of the club owner Georges, announces his plans to get married to the daughter of a right wing, ultra-conservative politician. He also tells his father that he's already invited the girl's parents over the next day as they've insisted on meeting both of his parents and that he has also invited his biological mother, whom he hasn't seen in years, to portray some sense of normalcy in their "family." That sets in motion a plot the two concoct to move the boy's other father Albin out of the picture to ensure his flamboyant personality won't intrude and derail the prospects of the wedding. However, things don't go exactly as planned, and lessons are learned from everyone involved on just what constitutes a family and how people you may perceive to be different from you aren't so different after all.
Jerry Herman's songs are toe-tapping, memorable and vibrant, with the ballads "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There" exceptionally stirring, and the show's two big anthems, "I Am What I Am" and "The Best of Times," still rousing and impactful. Harvey Fierstein's book is funny and fast paced yet also infused with emotion, with characters and situations that are comical but also realistic. The show is less shocking now than when it first premiered, and gay rights have taken a huge step forward in the past thirty years, but the central theme of acceptance is still quite relevant.
Jamie Parnell and Michael Ursua are perfect as Georges and Albin, respectively. With their constant bickering, expressive gestures, and loving glances, they beautifully form a realistic couple who have been together for over 20 years. Ursua instills Albin with a large dose of vulnerability underneath his outlandish wigs and sequined gowns. Yet there is also a forceful power he projects, especially when he takes charge of what could have been a bad situation in the second act, that draws you into the plight of the character and makes you want to protect him, just like Parnell's Georges does. Parnell oozes charm and charism throughout, along with a stern but caring sensitivity toward the relationship with Ursua's Albin. Their singing voices are sensational. When Ursua sings "I Am What I Am," he stops the show with the power and pathos he brings to that moment, and Parnell's "Look Over There" will most likely move you to tears with the tenderness and strength he instills in Herman's succinct, moving lyrics.
As their son Jean-Michel, Zane Hadish has the difficult task of playing the show's bad guy, since Jean-Michel wants Albin to not be present when his new in-laws come to visit. Hadish is quite good in playing this self-absorbed character, with realistic body language and appropriate physical contact between him and Parnell and Ursua to depict a natural parent and child relationship. Hadish also has a beautiful singing voice. As Albin and Georges' "maid" Jacob, Seth Tucker adds some funny bits with comical looks, exaggerated speech, and humorous line delivery. As Jean-Michel's potential fiancée and her parents, Alexandra Carter, Mark Woodard and Carolyn McPhee all do good work, as do the eight men and women who play Les Cagelles, the outlandish performers in the drag club.
ABT's large-scale production includes an abundance of glitz and glamour, especially in Matthew Solomon's elaborate and detailed costumes and Amanda Gran's fun wigs. While Douglas Clarke's set design is efficient and features a lovely element for the seaside cityscape scenes, the interior of Georges and Albin's house is too normal looking at first and not over the top so that the change to a more scaled-down version doesn't get as large of a laugh. Director Clayton Phillips and his talented cast ensure that most of the big comic moments land while not downplaying the beating heart of emotion at the show's center. Choreographer Kurtis Overby delivers some high-flying numbers for Les Cagelles that show off their exceptional dance and athletic abilities.
With a lovely and optimistic message at its center, along with a cast who excel, La Cage aux Folles at Arizona Broadway Theatre is a fun and moving musical treat that is also still incredibly timely.
La Cage aux Folles runs through February 28, 2020, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. The production then moves to Downtown Phoenix at the Herberger Theater Center where it runs from March 6-22. For tickets and information, please visit www.azbroadway.org or call 623-776-8400.
Direction: Clayton Phillips
*Member, Actors' Equity Association