A middle-aged gay couple, a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, an ultra-conservative politician and his traditional wife, and two young adults in their twenties who plan on getting married in spite of their families’ differences are all brought to life in The Marriott Theatre’s newest production of “La Cage aux Folles.”
The classic musical comedy originally premiered on Broadway in 1983 and won six Tony Awards, making it one of the most successful Broadway musical of all time. It is based on a 1973 French play by Jean Poiret and was revived on Broadway in both 2004 and 2010. The story of “La Cage aux Folles” is perhaps most famously known in “The Birdcage,” the 1996 film adaptation of the musical starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
Around 20 years have passed since Joe Leonardo first directed the same production at The Marriott Theatre in 1994. Presenting a classic story before a contemporary audience who may have a greater appreciation for its relevance than viewers in decades past, Leonardo offers an adaptation that is reminiscent of both the original Broadway production and the film version. It has the same highly emotional, exaggerated and comical scenes that underscore more important issues relating to family, love and identity.
As far as actors and actresses are concerned, the production’s shining star is Gene Weygandt, who plays the wonderfully expressive Albin, partner to Saint-Tropez nightclub owner Georges and the star of his featured drag show. Weygandt reminds me of Nathan Lane’s Albert in the 1996 movie, from the super feminine way he portrays his character’s walk and gestures to the “high alto” of his voice and dramatic reactions. Similar to the movie, Weygandt is fabulous in the first scene of the second act when he practices acting like a man with actor David Hess (who plays Georges), including mimicking to perfection Lane’s interpretation of John Wayne’s masculine walk. Weygandt presents his character as comical but also clever and strong. He is defiant when he sings, “I Am What I Am,” a more serious scene of the play, after Georges asks him not to be present at the dinner with Jean-Michel’s (his son’s) in-laws. In this scene, Weygandt, who is dressed in a dark green, sparkling gown, abruptly dismisses the other drag queens from the stage and powerfully addresses the audience as his character proudly acknowledges who he is.
Hess is the other star of the show. Although not nearly as entertaining as Weygandt, he has a beautiful, deep singing voice, appears well-dressed and elegant in his tailored suits throughout the performance, and portrays Georges as much less severe than Robin Williams’ Armand in the movie. There is no doubt that Hess’ best scenes are with Weygandt, particularly the third scene of the first act where they sing “With You On My Arm” and playfully dance and move with each other. Hess also plays Georges as much more tolerant and sympathetic to Albin’s dramatic tendencies and comes off as more loving and caring than Williams’ Armand.
Joseph Anthony Byrd, as Albin’s faithful maid Jacob, and Susan Moniz as Jacqueline, owner of the local restaurant Chez Jacqueline, are also wonderful actors. Byrd offers a ton of humor, attitude and wit when playing Jacob, while Moniz portrays Jacqueline as Georges and Albin’s charming, loyal and clever friend.
Despite Marriott’s small and simple stage, Set Designer Thomas Ryan manages to do a great deal with stage props and backdrops to create the production’s setting. The floor of Georges’ Saint-Tropez nightclub is covered in lights that produce elaborate designs with shadows, while the nightclub’s ceiling contains sparkling, gold chandeliers that hang in tiny birdcages. The not-so-subtle décor of Albin and Georges apartment is portrayed with an ensemble of chairs and couches, a make-up table surrounded by wooden square frames that drop from the ceiling to create Albin’s dressing room area, and silk curtains that hang on the sides of the stage. Ryan creates his outdoor settings, including Jacqueline’s restaurant, by creatively using tables and chairs, elegant lamppost props decorated with pots of flowers and ivy, and an ivy-covered archway.
The last, but certainly not least, important element to the musical is the night club’s chorus line, or “Les Cagelles.” These drag queens appear throughout the production, mostly during nightclub scenes, dancing and singing directly to the audience in colorful ensembles. The actors are funny, witty and full of attitude, adding more excitement to the musical when it felt a bit slow at times. Additionally, Leonardo’s choice to have Georges and Albin interact directly with audience members and transform the Marriott’s audience into the audience of their Saint-Tropez night club, is brilliant and draws your attention back to the performance each time.
The characters of “La Cage aux Folles” are as much outrageous and entertaining as they are admirable and relatable. The Marriott Theatre continues this classic musical’s tradition of celebrating tolerance and acceptance with much needed laughter and love.