Salutations, mesdames et messieurs! On Saturday night, I bundled up, ventured out of the house (for once), and found myself in the grandest, bawdiest nightclub on the French Rivera — and all without leaving Madison! How did I do that? Easy peasy!
Saturday night was the final staging of the musical La Cage aux Folles by Music Theatre of Madison. Currently in its 10th anniversary season, MTM aims to produce and exhibit musicals that are unique, lesser-known, or not often performed — including some that had never previously been performed in Wisconsin. They also emphasize local artistes performing in innovative ways and accessible locales. What do I mean by “accessible,” you may ask?
MTM staged La Cage aux Folles the past two weekends (Thursday thru Saturday) at Madison’s FIVE Nightclub. Yes, the very same FIVE where I went out as Allison for the very first time many moons ago (when it was known as Club 5), and the same FIVE that was thankfully saved from closure just last year.
I’ll discuss the locale a little later, but I want to dive first into la viande et les pommes de terre de l’émission (that’s “the meat and potatoes of the show” for those like me who don’t know French and have to rely on Google Translate). La Cage aux Folles centers on the committed and loving male couple Georges and Albin. Georges is the owner and handsome maître des cérémonies of the drag club that lends the musical its name. Albin, as “Zaza,” is the club’s star and a true diva. Their adult son, Jean-Michel, has arrived home with bombshell news: He’s infatuated with a lovely girl, Anne Dindon, and they are engaged to be married. Before agreeing to their daughter’s marriage, Anne’s parents want to meet Jean-Michel’s parents, and therein lies a problem: Anne’s father is morally ultra-conservative and aims to close drag clubs such as Georges’ beloved La Cage.
To get on the good graces of Anne’s parents, Jean-Michel asks his fathers and their “maid” to, well, act all manly and traditional, hiding all traces of their flamboyance. What’s more, Jean-Michel calls on his long-absent birth mother to come and play the maternal role Albin always saw himself fulfilling in Jean-Michel’s life. This is where the actor playing Albin, Robert Goderich, really shines; having to act all manly is one thing, but being demoted to “uncle” leaves him real sore.
But here’s where flamboyant romp turned emotional drama turns into screwball comedy: The birth mother is predisposed, allowing Albin to bring out a toned-down version of Zaza just as Anne’s parents arrive. (Good-natured side note: The actor playing Mr. Dindon, Paul Lorentz, must have just inherited Antonin Scalia’s mean scowl Saturday afternoon.) After scene-stealing physical comedy aborts dinner at their home, Albin and Georges leads the group to a nearby restaurant owned by their friend; this is where Zaza, always one to entertain a crowd, sings a number — only to take a bow, remove his wig, and reveal his true identity (force of habit, perhaps?). Luckily, by the end, everyone patches things up: Mr. Dindon reluctantly approves of the engagement; Jean-Michel asks for and gains forgiveness from Albin; and even Mr. and Mrs. Dindon save their reputation, albeit in a way they wouldn’t have preferred.
The leads in La Cage aux Folles were truly topnotch. I mentioned Robert Goderich above as playing Albin, and he did an incredible job morphing into a role that is clearly the play’s emotional center. He displays a rich, incredible singing voice, delivers charm by the boatload, and demonstrates great comedic chops when performing as Zaza and interacting and improvising with the crowd, especially those sitting way back in “the cheap seats” along FIVE’s bar who play right along with Zaza in one fun segment. The above-noted moment when Albin learns his son his shutting him out is the role’s emotional high point, allowing Goderich to show emotional range that everyone can understand and empathize with.
While Albin/Zaza is all glamour and sass, Doug Swenson as husband Georges is charming and debonair. Though there are moments when Georges shows exasperation towards Albin’s diva-tude and Jean-Michel’s demands, perhaps to the point where one reviewer interprets it as aloofness (really, Gwendolyn Rice of Isthmus?), it’s only a sign that he’s the compass, pointed directly true north, that his husband and son need to rely on and follow, whether or not those two would admit or even recognize it. Swenson as Georges really interacted well with the other characters, especially with Albin during their beautiful romantic interludes. You get a real sense from the two leads’ performances that Albin and Georges truly love and adore each other through thick and thin.
The supporting cast performed admirably, especially J. Adam Shelton in the role of Georges and Albin’s butler/maid. He brought scene-stealing physicality, especially selling the point when he botches dinner with the Dindons, a moment when you hope he would be forgiven for the pratfall and be allowed a spot in a show at La Cage, a role he dreams of. Also of note are Les Cagelles, the quartet of queens who performed the opening number, served as Zaza’s background performers, and provided charm of their own. At least one of the Les Cagelles performers is listed in the program as previously performing in drag, but all four really slayed. (Oh, and Daniel Pietrangelo as “Hanna from Hamburg” really knows how to crack that whip, in the literal sense. *WHACK*)
The Saturday performance of La Cage aux Folles (as noted above, the conclusion of the two-week, six-night run), looked like a sellout house at FIVE, and the crowd sure sounded welcoming and open to the performance. It should be noted how that crowd was assembled: Since FIVE is a night club, it has a simple performance area, one that employs a main stage as well as a stretched-out catwalk that was put to good use by the cast. How was that catwalk set up? Think of it as looking like the top of an old-fashioned telephone pole; better yet, it seemed more like a boat dock with a couple of slots for boats on either side (only there were tables instead of boats) with the platform elevated in the front section. (You can see the layout in this photo.) The audience was assembled almost (but not quite) as a theater in the round, seated at FIVE’s regular or elevated tables and chairs or bar stools. The crowd also had to allow the performers to navigate marked-off (by tape) portions of the floor, especially when the cast had to exit to the backstage area for their next scene (yep, they had other access backstage in addition to the main stage area). Oh, and not only were the cast at eye level with the audience, so was the seven-member live band that provided the music. Yep, there were no pre-recorded instrumentals for the cast to sing along to, which allowed for perfect vocal timing and for some nice bits of of self-referential spontaneity (“Hit it, maestro!”).
If there was a drawback to the surroundings, it’s that not every seating position allowed every audience member to have a clear view of every bit of the performance. I was among those who didn’t, unfortunately. My seat (or bar stool, actually) was further back but level with where the catwalk met the stage. However, a building support was in my line of sight (they have to keep the ceiling up somehow *LOL*), which meant that I sometimes had to crank and turn my head and neck in order to see what was going on. And since FIVE is a bar, the ambient yet quiet sounds from fellow audience members seated next to you or way back in the bar was a little bit of an intrusion. Really, some just don’t know how to finish a conversation before the lights go down for Act II.
But that’s not to mean that MTM’s decision to stage La Cage aux Folles at a club such as FIVE was a bad idea. Au contraire, mes amis. I mean, it is part of their effort to bring musical theater in unconventional ways. (It probably also means they don’t have to pay pricey rent to be a resident at one of the major stage theaters here in Madison, which I imagine can be a good thing.) In fact, MTM’s next scheduled production — a one-woman drama held at a coffee house near Monona Bay — sounds even more intimate than La Cage was at FIVE. Compliments to MTM for their unconventionality. Sure not every setting may be perfect, but they do make an admirable effort to lure musical performances away from those high holy cathedral-like venues.
Back to the content of La Cage aux Folles for a bit. I came across this BroadwayWorld.com review of the show, a critique that opened with this paragraph: “La Cage aux Folles is not the show it used to be.” It got me to thinking… how relevant is this musical in 2016? Indeed it began life as a 1983 Tony Award-winning show that was based on a same-named 1973 play. But the ’70s and ’80s were different eras, when drag performances and same-sex relationships were considered well outside the mainstream. Here in the 21st century, however, the LGBT community is more open and people have been more accepting, thanks in no small part to positive portrayals from Will & Grace to Modern Family. It’s that same openness that has put a much broader spotlight on drag, welcoming RuPaul, her Drag Race, the successful film and musical versions of Kinky Boots — and a Broadway revival of La Cage earlier this decade.
So, the question is to be asked: Is La Cage aux Folles still relevant here in these ever changing times? The easy answer to that would be… well, yes. And with inspiration from that above linked BroadwayWorld.com review, let me explain with these bullet points the themes La Cage still holds dearly:
Don’t be afraid to love who you love — There was a time when public displays of affection between Georges and Albin, and the panic the latter character may have felt, could be met with a sneer of the nose (or worse) by those who could not yet or would never want to understand. Many in society these days wouldn’t think twice of those of the same gender publicly displaying true romantic love toward each other, and any panic sign from one half of the couple could be regarded as a sign of shyness or modesty (“Aw, thank you, but I’d like to get frisky a little later, okay?”). But Georges and Albin aren’t the only couple who would fit into this category: Even with Mr. Dindon’s anger toward Zaza inadvertently revealing herself as Albin in Act II, his daughter Anne was willing to look past the flamboyance and non-confirming of Jean-Michel’s fathers and remain committed to her fiance — meaning she wasn’t afraid to become part of the unconventional family her father has contempt for.
Don’t be afraid to be who you are — It was clear that Albin did not like it when Jean-Michel asked him to be all manly (“Uncle Al?!”) and stuff Zaza into the closet. Likewise, Georges felt weird when his son asked him to tell the Dindons he was a retired French Foreign Legion spy. Everyone in the La Cage aux Folles audience, wherever or whenever the musical has been performed, can certainly empathize with how these two men felt. Just as Georges and Albin feel comfortable as club owner and drag queen, respectively, Joe or Jane Smith may be comfortable as truck driver, housekeeper, business executive, or whatever.
Don’t be afraid to change a little bit — That last bullet point is not to say one shouldn’t venture out of their comfort level every now and again. For sure, if Mr. Dindon had his druthers, he would have pulled Anne kicking and screaming from Jean-Michel’s side. But a recognition of the true love their daughter had for her fiance even after Albin’s accidental reveal allowed Mr. Dindon to soften his stance a little bit and give them his blessing, even if he had to hold his nose while doing so. As well, he and Mrs. Dindon, desperate to save their reputation, agreed to assistance from Albin and Georges to make a quick-change escape from the paparazzi in the finale. I’d like to think that after those last moments of La Cage aux Folles, the Dindons would become a little more open to those they would become related to by marriage, just as Albin and Georges could likely become at least a bit accommodating towards them.
Don’t be afraid to stay who you are — As Albin defiantly sang at the end of Act I, “I am what I am.” He was telling his loved ones and the world that he takes pride in being as flamboyant as he can be, haters be dammed. It’s that stance of defiance that can provide a punch in real life. Even though the LGBT community has gained so much here in the 21st century, there are still a lot of Mr. Dindons out there — some of whom are currently running for high political office — who are just as defiant (perhaps much more so) and won’t soften their stance towards those who do not share the same lifestyle or viewpoints as they do. But though not everyone may be as flamboyant as Albin, they can be just as defiant by showing a positive face: We may be gay or bi or trans, but we put our shoes on the same way as those who are straight as arrows, whether those shoes are lace-up sneakers or 6-inch stilettos.
Yes, times have changed in the decades since La Cage aux Folles was first staged. But if you find it playing at a theater or club near you — and if you go and see it (and, believe me, you should) — take time to really listen to the themes. And you’ll definitely discover that underneath those perruques, boas de plumes, and robe de paillettes glamour beats the heart of a musical that still holds some true relevance. Prendre plaisir!