Review: ‘La Cage aux Folles’ at Signature Theatre

What is a family? Is it all about biology or does it have much more to do with love? Surely, it’s the latter, and this lesson has never been more sensitively, humorously, and colorfully presented than in Signature Theatre’s spectacular production of La Cage aux Folles.

Brent Barrett (Georges) and Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Brent Barrett (Georges) and Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Based on Jean Poiret’s 1973 play, with music and lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman and book by the remarkable Harvey Fierstein, this endearing and enduring 1984 musical comedy won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Choreography. With the eminently credentialed Director and Choreographer Matthew Gardiner and the world class Music Director Darius Smith at the helm, La Cage aux Folles is just as meaningful and enjoyable as it was 32 years ago.

The story is set in a drag night club called La Cage aux Folles in St. Tropez on the French Riviera, and describes an episode in the lives and loves of a non-traditional family. Georges is the owner of the night club and is beautifully portrayed by the fantastic, headturningly handsome Brent Barrett. Georges’ partner of 20 years and the night club’s star performer is Albin, played by the versatile, ultra-talented perennial favorite Bobby Smith. Georges’ son Jean-Michel is played by the bright and talented Paul Scanlan, with just the right mix of naiveté and the arrogance of youth.

Georges and Albin raised Jean-Michel together, his mother having been physically and emotionally absent for most of his life. When Jean-Michel announces his engagement to the daughter of an extreme right-wing government official, he asks Georges and Albin to feign a straight lifestyle while his fiancée and her family visit for dinner and an overnight stay. Georges and Albin reluctantly agree to the deception, but, to put it mildly, the best laid plans often go awry.

Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Bobby Smith (Albin). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Bobby Smith is nothing short of transcendent in the challenging role of an aging drag queen. He turns in a layered, nuanced depiction of Albin’s private life as well as his onstage persona Zaza, with equal parts of sensitivity and hilarity  Smith’s comedy timing is perfect; his acting and dancing are top-notch; and his vocal range and voice dynamics are superb. When he performs the iconic anthem “I Am What I Am,” he quite literally stops the show.

Although he has just been thoughtlessly insulted by Jean-Michel, Albin takes the stage as Zaza and begins to sing. At first, he is hesitant and halting, with his voice barely above a whisper. But later the tone becomes increasingly defiant and self-affirming, and ends with a powerful crescendo that is absolutely thrilling.

Brent Barrett shines in the role of Georges who evinces mature love and caring, as he tries to balance his son’s desires with his partner’s needs.  In the quintessentially romantic ballad “Song on the Sand,” Georges recalls the wonderful memories that he and Albin share—with a rich, baritone voice.  Later, he tries to teach his son the true meaning of parenthood, with the haunting melody “Look Over There.”

In addition, there are a number of smaller roles with standout performances.  Jacqueline, the fellow night club owner, is played by Nova Y. Payton who performs, as always, with her beautiful, strong, almost supernatural singing voice. DJ Petrosino plays the role of Jacob, Albin’s maid/butler, with appropriately over-the-top physical comedy.

Monsieur Dinson ( Mitchell Hébert) and Madame Dindon (Sherri L. Edelen). hot by Christopher Mueller.
Monsieur Dindon (Mitchell Hébert) and Madame Dindon (Sherri L. Edelen). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Sherri L. Edelen, as Marie, the wife of the government official and Mitchell Hébert portray the ultra-conservative and ‘uppity’ Dindons. Both display great comic timing and chemistry together and provide many laughs. Ms. Edelen, as usual, also shows her well-known musical prowess. And, kudos to Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isaiah W. Young, and Phil Young, as Les Cagelles, the night club’s uproariously entertaining back-up group!

The entire ensemble is spectacular in the joyous and triumphant production number “The Best of Times.” Albin starts the song in a slow tempo and is later joined by Jacqueline who continues the languid pace. Gradually, the tempo picks up and, one by one, the rest of the cast members add their voices. Then they pair off into dancing couples, frequently changing partners, until the number concludes with a traditional “big finish”.

Matthew Gardiner’s choreography provides a variety of stunning dance numbers. From ballroom to tap to modern jazz to can-can to acrobatics, the dancers turn in dazzling and seemingly effortless performances. Music Director Darius Smith flawlessly leads a wonderfully talented 8-piece orchestra through a delightful score.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s fearless use of color, not to mention sequins, spangles, beads and feathers, gives the audience a glittering, glorious, girlish, and gaudy extravaganza. Scenic Designer Lee Savage contrasts beautifully ornate sets with overdone and tacky pieces, all of which are completely appropriate to the story. And, Lighting Designer Jason Lyons skillfully contributes color changes with kaleidoscopic precision.

Darius Delk, Isaiah Young, Jay Westin, Bobby Smith, Sam Brackley, Ethan Kasnett and Phil Young. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Darius Delk, Isaiah Young, Jay Westin, Bobby Smith, Sam Brackley, Ethan Kasnett and Phil Young. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Simply put, Signature Theatre’s La Cage aux Folles is a brilliant production. It teaches important life lessons without being preachy, and presents a sweet story without descending into mawkish sentimentality. It earns every emotion that it asks of its audience, and provides outrageous comedy, beautiful music, splendid choreography, and amazing performances. Most importantly, it reminds us that we should not merely tolerate our differences; we should celebrate them.

You’ll want to get your tickets immediately for Signature Theatre’s stupendously entertaining La Cage aux Folles “because the best of times is now, and there may not be any tickets left later!” C‘est manifique!!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

La Cage aux Folles  plays through July 10, 2016 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

In the Moment: ‘La Cage aux Folles’ at Signature Theatre: New Meaning in the Midst of the Orlando Massacre and a Spoiled Son by David Siegel.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1552.gif

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.


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