There are a few reasons why La Cage aux Folles has remained popular since premiering on Broadway in 1983. The material is crowdpleasing entertainment with sunny songs from Jerry Herman and broad humor courtesy of playwright Harvey Fierstein. Another significant reason why the story still strikes a chord is because it was the first major musical hit to focus on gay characters.
Inspired by the 1973 French farce, which was adapted into a 1978 movie and the 1996 remake “The Birdcage,” the plot remains faithful to the original tale. In St. Tropez, Georges (Robert J. Townsend) owns and hosts the risqué drag nightclub, La Cage aux Folles. He has a loving, if dysfunctional, lifelong relationship with the star of the nightspot, Albin (David Engel who was in the original Broadway production).
Their devotion for each other is tested when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (Bren Thor Johnson) reveals that he is getting married to the beautiful Anne (Ashley Ruth Jones). Afraid of her ultra-conservative parents, Edouard and Marie Dindon (David Mitchum Brown and Debra Wanger), Jean-Michel sets up a dinner for them to meet his folks. The catch is that Georges has to pretend to be straight and the proudly gay Albin cannot appear at the meal.
Larry Raben directs the nightclub sequences with energy that encourages hooting and hollering from the audience. The Spreckels Theatre is a perfect location for the high-spirited shenanigans from San Diego Musical Theatre, especially during the extended title song. Raben injects interactive elements as well as stunning and bawdy choreography from Karl Warden. Don Le Master’s European influenced conducting adds buoyancy to Herman’s addicting tune.
The club sequences, on Brett Young and David Medina’s swanky set, are when the “Les Cagelles” get their moments in the spotlight wearing revealing clothes from Janet Pitcher. They are often the butt of a joke (sometimes literally); however their impressive singing and dancing allows viewers to laugh with the transvestites, instead of at them.
Raben takes the many scenes outside of the club just as seriously, and the conversations between Georges and Albin feel intimate and pure. He allows the production to breathe and does not get in the way of the quieter moments between the characters.
Townsend and Engel are instantly believable as a typical couple that just happen to be gay. If the original film got a lot of laughs from the tensions between the duo, Fierstein and Herman get just as much pleasure from celebrating their loyalty. The duets between Townsend and Engel bring out the best in the performers as they display natural warmth and affection.
Holding his own with the leads is James Vasquez as the butler/maid, Jacob. He has a field day with Fierstein’s prose, especially in act two since he gets to be featured in almost every scene.
Strangely, a problematic role is Jean-Michel. Although he has been portrayed empathetically on the big screen, the writers and Johnson turn him into a self-absorbed young man.
Perhaps the point was for Jean-Michel to be almost as much of an antagonist as the droll Edouard. However, it becomes difficult to care if Jean-Michel ends up married to Anne. Truth be told, the love subplot has never been the most significant part of La Cage aux Folles and this aspect does not take away too much from the narrative.
At least Johnson makes his climatic moments with Engel cause a lump in the throat. Without spoiling the ending, Jean-Michel’s resolution with Albin might make parents in the audience emotional.
An important question that should be answered is that after several decades, does La Cage aux Folles still hold up? For proof that it does, look no further than the famous showtune “I am What I am” sung by Engel. His angry, sad and ultimately inspirational rendition resonates with anyone who feels like a misfit.
The miking issues from Kevin Anthenill’s sound design did not detract from the relevant, funny and still topical new interpretation. In a year when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, this is an ideal time to reunite with Georges and Albin.