By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan
They say the French have a word for it, but sometimes its meaning gets lost in translation. The word in question is “folle,” as in “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical beginning a run at the Fisher Theatre. Literally, it means “madwoman,” yet doubles in slang as reference to an effeminate man or a transvestite.
Both meanings apply to this revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1984 hit. “La Cage” scored Tony Awards for Best Musical, then Best Revival of a Musical for each of its two reincarnations. Considering the troubles in the NHL, this may be the only hat trick we see this season.
To what should we owe its success? It starts with strong source material, classic French farce turned topsy-turvy by a gender-bending twist. Jean Poiret’s 1973 play inspired a Franco-Italian film favorite, as well as the 1996 American flick, “The Birdcage.” “La Cage” finds honesty and loyalty in unlikely places. In its own subversive way, it suggests a new way of looking at “family values.”
In the Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez, the hot ticket is La Cage aux Folles, a nightclub featuring a revue of female impersonators. Above the club live the owner, Georges (George Hamilton), and Albin (Christopher Sieber), his 15-year business partner and 20-year life partner. Albin, as his alter-ego “Zaza,” is the club’s headliner. Routine is interrupted by the return of Georges’ son, John-Michel (Michael Lowney), with a fiancee and her family in tow.
What would make for an uncomfortable “meet the parents” is more complicated still. Anne’s father is the head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party.” Since John-Michel is the product of a one-night-stand, Albin has assumed the role of stand-in Mom. The son has lied about his upbringing and, to impress his prospective in-laws, wants his birth-mother on hand and the effeminate Albin out of the way. Of course, the best laid plans go awry – after all, this is farce.
Previous productions of “La Cage aux Folles” relied heavily on Broadway glamour and glitter. The first line sung by the chorus “girls” runs, “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion.” In director Terry Johnson’s vision, that line should read “… is a delusion.” The nightclub is a little seedy. The “notorious and dangerous Cagelles” are a bawdy, blowsy bunch.
Zaza is in the autumn of her career – somewhere around mid-November. The glitz is wearing thin, but there’s power in make-believe. Having the courage to look beyond the superficial and discover the integrity that lies beneath is a daunting step.
Hamilton is a stiff but affable Georges. But here he is – ahem – the straight man for the overwhelming stage presence of Sieber as Albin. His truly astonishing vocal range and comic timing keeps Sieber the center of attention. Albin’s newly found sense of self, expressed in the show’s signature number, “I Am What I Am,” spreads to those around him. Deception and delusion give way to affirmation and tolerance.
The madcap Jeigh Madjus immediately won over the audience in his campy portrayal of Jacob, Georges and Albin’s butler/maid/showgirl wannabe. The character is so strong, though, he upstages the second verse of Michael Lowney’s number, “With Anne on My Arm.”
According to another hit musical, the chorus is only there to make the star look good. Les Cagelles are so much more. One marvels at the dedication of these guys in performing Lynne Page’s exhilarating choreography, full of flips, cartwheels and even roller skating.
All this, mind you, is done in heels, skirts and wigs that act like they’re stapled on. To six superbly trained and entertaining athletes: Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter, Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell and Dale Hensley, I offer a hearty, “Well done, ladies, well done!”
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan HERE.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.