The first time I saw “La Cage Aux Folles” was via a national tour production in 1984 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. The farcical musical written by Harvey Fierstein with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman is based on the play by Jean Poiret. Upon seeing the Actors Theatre of Indiana production at the Studio Theatre at the Center for The Performing Arts in Carmel Friday, I realized why, so many years later, the musical endures.
At the time it was first presented, the show was thoroughly groundbreaking in its depiction of same sex couple Albin/Zaza, a drag queen performer, and his companion Georges, who operate a cabaret in Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera. Things go awry when the couple’s son brings home his fiancée and her ultra conservative parents, setting up a situation ripe for madcap comedy, with messages about tolerance and love that transcends sexuality.
I couldn’t help but consider all that has occurred, at least in this country, as it relates to LGBT civil rights since this show first premiered. Though same- sex marriage is now legal and gays and lesbians can serve in the military, there is still a long way to go as transgender rights are being threatened, gay bashing, and a high suicide rate among LGBT youth continues unabated. Nevertheless, as frothy and stereotypical as “La Cage Aux Folles” is, it remains successful at opening doors of understanding and acceptance. Evidence of that could be seen in the wildly enthusiastic response of the ATI audience, consisting primarily of older couples who clearly enjoyed themselves and the nearly sold-out opening night performance.
Of course, there is nothing like comedy and solid entertainment to break down barriers and the outstanding cast of “La Cage Aux Folles” more than met that task. Splendidly directed by Larry Raben, the show stars ATI co-founder Don Farrell as Albin/Zaza and Bill Book as Georges. Their affectionate portrayal of a long term couple, in a relationship fraught with challenges common to anyone who has ever been committed to someone, was not only endearing, it was completely convincing.
Farrell, with his impressive list of credits, is not only a seasoned performer but also one of the finest showmen around. Making his performance even more special was the multi-dimensional quality of his dual roles as Albin, the, high-strung martyr who lives for his loved ones and Zaza, the consummate entertainer who regales her audiences. Farrell’s rendition of “I Am What I Am” is nothing short of dazzling . It was that powerful, I got goosebumps.
If anyone was born to play the role of Albin’s devoted, long suffering companion, it is Book. Excelling in any musical he has appeared in, and there have been many, Book once again turned in a finely-tuned performance that showcased his first-rate vocal and dramatic gifts. Establishing his credentials as a quintessential leading man, Book shined when he sang the romantic “Song on The Sand” and poignant “Look Over There.”
Hysterically funny was Daniel Klingler as Albin/Zaza’s loyal, albeit opportunistic butler/maid Jacob, who yearns to have his moment in the spotlight. Also the show’s wig/make up designer, Klingler’s multiple roles in the show are his swan song as he prepares to move to New York City to advance his flourishing career as a theatre artist.
Also deserving of praise is ATI co-founder and accomplished character actor Judy Fitzgerald who excelled as flamboyant restaurant owner and Zaza’s best friend, Jacqueline.
Impeccable as the right-wing politician who getshis well-deserved comeuppance in the end was Ken Klingenmeier as stuffy, self-righteous Edouard Dindon.
Simply marvelous were Greg Grimes, Michael Humphrey, Tim Hunt and Kenny Shepard as Les Cagelles, the chorus line in Zaza & Georges’club. Executing Carol Worcel’s sprightly choreography, they excelled as the glamorous female impersonators in the musical’s show within the show.
Speaking of glamorous, the costumes in the show created by designer extraordinaire Stephen R. Hollenbeck are among his best work and one of the show’s biggest attractions.
For a dose of joyful entertainment mixed with a bit of social consciousness, there is little more satisfying than this ATI offering that kicks off a season that promises to light up the local theatre landscape. I predict “La Cage Aux Folles” will be a best-seller so I strongly suggest you reserve your place at Zaza & Georges’ club forthwith. You won’t regret it.
For tickets to “La Cage Aux Folles” visit www.atistage.org or call the Center for the Performing Arts box office at (317) 843-3800.