“It’s rather gaudy, but it’s also rather grand,” the title song of La Cage aux Folles asserts of its titular drag club, and the same may be said of the musical that is set there, now receiving a grandly gaudy production (one of two currently playing in Baltimore) by the extraordinary African-American-centered troupe ArtsCentric.
The show, adapted by songwriter Jerry Herman and librettist Harvey Fierstein from a popular French movie, is often hailed as a milestone in the theatrical representation of gay characters, especially the longtime couple Georges (Jimi Kinstle), the owner of the club, and Albin (Ray Hatch-Terbush), its star performer under the stage name ZaZa. The depiction of their often stormy but ever-devoted relationship was indeed a breakthrough for American acceptance of same-sex love, particularly welcome coming as it did on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic that would soon decimate the community it celebrated.
Nevertheless, there were many at the time – this critic included – who lamented that a relatively fluffy and musically unadventurous work would sweep the Tony Awards at the expense of a deeper and more daring musical, Sunday in the Park with George – a show that coincidentally not only shared a protagonist’s name but also was the brainchild of a gay man, Stephen Sondheim, albeit one not as publicly open back then, in either his art or his life, about his sexuality. Though the superiority of Sondheim’s George remains clear three-and-a-half decades later, time has been kind to La Cage as well. In fact, it still seems all too relevant in an era when gay marriage has been nominally legitimized but LGBTQ rights continue to be under attack.
Here representing the intolerant forces of “morality” are the Dindons, whose daughter intends to wed Jean-Michel (Jamel Cole), the boy Georges and Albin have reared as their son. Hateful as the Dindons may be, Jean-Michel is arguably even worse, if only because he should know better. Not only does he attempt to conceal his two dads’ all-but-legal marriage from his fiancée’s family, but he even tries to keep the more effeminate Albin out of the picture altogether. Director Kevin S. McAllister slyly intimates that Jean-Michel’s reticence may be more than mere cowardice. In the scene where the boy joyously announces his engagement, McAllister has him jump on a couch the way Tom Cruise did when he publicized his upcoming, ultimately disastrous marriage to Katie Holmes on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Could it be that Jean-Michel, like Tom, has something to hide?
Even more troublingly, Georges goes along with the plan at first, seemingly confirming Albin’s suspicions that there was always something a bit affected about his affections. In another stroke of genius, McAllister punctuates Georges’ assurance of his undying love, “Song on the Sand,” by drawing a curtain to reveal the Cagelles, the chorus line from the club, pretending to play the song’s accompaniment on prop instruments with all the ludicrous sincerity of Jimmy Fallon and the Roots. Yes, Georges is putting on an act, McAllister appears to be saying, but as in the best performances, who can say that the lie isn’t another form of truth?
Taking this as his cue, Kinstle portrays Georges not in the usual manner as the more straight-acting of the pair, but as a man who aspires to be as flamboyant as ZaZa, yet who, despite fabulously over-the-top costumes by Kitt Crescenzo, will always need his better half to fulfill that vision. That symbiosis makes his betrayal all the more tragic, and Kinstle plays that tragedy to the hilt in “Look Over There,” the song in which he struggles to convince Jean-Michel of Albin’s parental love. For all his protestations, Georges can’t bring himself to look over there at his spouse either, racked as he is by guilt at his own denial of Albin’s worth – and as a result, of his own true worth as well.
Conversely, Hatch-Terbush plays Albin not as a born diva, but as an ugly duckling who can only metamorphose into a swan by assuming the guise of ZaZa. There’s a strain of melancholy running through his funniest and even his most triumphant moments as if he’s aware how even his most brilliant charades fall short of reality. Frankly, some of Hatch-Terbush’s singing falls short of complete accuracy also, but he remains an undiminished figure, nonetheless, as if Herman’s music were merely an outline for him to color in as he sees fit.
Indeed, Crescenzo’s costumes tell a different story that we sense is truer to art if not life. The Marie-Antoinette outfit that ZaZa wears just prior to being cut off suggests that while he may be similarly doomed, he’s no less a queen. And the be-dazzled gown he changes into for his anthem of defiance, “I Am What I Am,” transforms him into a human rainbow flag – a creative coup as stunning, in its way, as the blending of color and light that forms the painting in the first act finale of Sunday in the Park with George. What’s more, when the most unlikely character is forced to don drag later in the show, he appears in an all-white version of this dress – a reminder that ostensibly pure white contains every color of the spectrum if refracted properly, as it is under Corey Brown’s lights.
James Raymond’s scenic design reinforces this message by making the audience part of the performance as if we’re all just awaiting a prism to reveal our true colors. Patrons are seated at cabaret tables, observing the action on two stages, to their left as well as in front, with actors occasionally even pulling up a seat next to you. Better yet, the Cagelles – consisting of Montel Butler, Robbie Duncan, Terrell Kellam, Emmanuel Key, and Henry Niepoetter, phenomenal dancers all – have been choreographed by David Singleton to be literally in your face. (One of them gave my husband a lipstick-infused smooch on the cheek in passing, for instance.) It’s no exaggeration to say they shake the theater with their hoofing, and they often skirt the lip of the stage as thrillingly as any tightrope-walker. No wonder that Georges and Albin’s “maid,” Jacob (Kymon George Carriker), so desperately wants to join their ranks and more than a few spectators will doubtlessly feel the same.
La Cage is not the first or the best musical to champion homosexuality, but it may be the gayest in the traditional sense of the word, and the talented artists of ArtsCentric will ensure that you have a gay old time in their company, no matter how hard you try to resist.
Running Time: Three hours, including one intermission.
La Cage aux Folles plays through November 4, 2018, at ArtsCentric performing at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door or purchase them online.