The meaning behind the title La Cage Aux Folles is something theatre-goers have debated for some time. The original French film subtitled the production as Birds of a Feather which many took to be the English equivalent of the phrase, solidified further by the fact that Mike Nichols called his Americanized version The Birdcage, but La Cage aux Folles has a literal meaning. In English it’s The Cage of the Mad Women, but there’s also a second meaning, a slang term that is actually closer to what the show is really about. In French, Folles can also mean queens, as in drag queens, or overly effeminate homosexuals. Now look at the title again. All of a sudden it makes sense.
In many respects, La Cage Aux Folles may have been a large scale Ziegfield Follies styled Broadway musical with gays possessing the sparkling costumes, glittering makeup and big hair, not to mention the shapely legs, but on the smaller and more intimate staging of Phoenix Theatre, the show actually works better and appears closer to its origins.. Those familiar with the show’s history – its beginning as a French farce in 1973, the celebrated French film, the Broadway musical, then the non-musical American film version – should be familiar with the fact that the La Cage nightspot on the Riviera was always intended to be a small scale, underground club for adults, something similar to the setting of Cabaret. The Phoenix Theatre stage nicely captures that smaller and more intimate atmosphere of how the show should be. Plus, and perhaps even more importantly, the smaller setting also brings out the farcical elements of the plot far more effectively than any large arena could ever hope to manage.
Audiences should recognize several familiar faces. Robert Kolby Harper plays Albin, also known by her/his stage name, Zaza, and I can’t imagine anyone else at the Phoenix more destined to play the role than Harper. Zaza is the star of La Cage, a nightclub drag queen so ablaze with over-the-top, effeminate affectations you’d swear that any second he’s about to burst into a ball of flame right in front of us. Harper has proved himself as an all-round talent on the local stage many times; his best work of late has actually been behind the scenes as director and choreographer. As a performer, Harper’s secret is his confidence. He embraces Zaza’s mannerisms with such gusto and determination that what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in sheer, theatrical bravado. Nowhere is this more evident than in his performance of I Am What I Am which closes the first half. He doesn’t sing or hold notes well, but he attacks and sells the moment with such gusto that the song takes on a dramatic new meaning in a way rarely seen in previous productions.
His partner is Georges, the owner of the club. Georges is undeniably gay, but with only the occasional moment of affectation, Georges is supposed to appear generally straight. In the current national touring production, George Hamilton stars in the role and underplays the character to such a casual point he’s practically sleepwalking. At Phoenix, Georges is played by local talent Rusty Ferracane and he does the exact opposite. Here, Georges is overly animated and full of energy in a way that the part is rarely presented. Ferracane has an outstanding singing voice but there’s a tendency for the actor to occasionally overplay some of the more effeminate affectations when not required. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final ten minutes of the show where Ferracane’s body movement, facial expressions and overall mannerisms are in danger of actually breaking character. The silly wig doesn’t help, either.
Special mention to Pasha Yamotahari giving an effortlessly funny turn as stage-hand Francis. Every time we see him he has either accumulated a new black eye or a broken arm. When you start dating a chorus ‘girl’ whose talent is cracking a whip you have to expect a few bruises now and again. Then there’s Eddie Maldonado who has a whale of a time as the butler/maid and he relishes every second. With his various wigs, makeup, heels and flesh revealing, feminine costumes, Maldonado looks less like a drag queen and more like a female bodybuilder ready to flex a few muscles at any moment
Music director Alan Ruch does an outstanding job with the band, as does Linda Love-Simmons with the choreography. The Can-Can sequence which combines both these elements is simply dazzling and almost created a standing-o of its own. Robert Kovach’s scenic design is effectively eye-catching, brought alive by Mike Eddy’s kaleidoscopic lighting.
Under Michael Barnard’s sharp direction – boy, does the show move – La Cage Aux Folles can easily be called a Phoenix Theatre triumph. With its showbiz glitz, memorable Jerry Herman show tunes and it’s broad, over-the-top humor, in many ways La Cage is the show Phoenix must have been waiting to produce for a long time. When the ‘ladies’ of the chorus sing “We like how it feels/Putting on heels,” you have no trouble believing them.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE to go to the Phoenix Theatre website.