A few years ago, as same-sex marriage was becoming legal all across the nation thanks to the evolved support of the president, the once daring 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles – which features two gay main characters and Broadway’s first male-male kiss – was looking a little dated.
But as MNM Productions correctly points out in its program notes for the show, its message of inclusiveness and tolerance has suddenly come under attack with the drastic change of political administrations. So unfortunately, this groundbreaking Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein show has new relevance. The musical – selected over a year ago by MNM in those carefree days of 2016 – has become timely once again.
Yes, there are a few outdated references – nightclub owner Georges calls his effeminate drag star partner of 25 years Albin his “wife” instead of his “husband” – but the show still packs as emotional wallop as a period piece of a bygone, though recent, time.
If you saw the original French film or the Hollywood remake, The Birdcage, you know the storyline. Georges has a son named Jean-Michel from a one-night heterosexual fling 26 years ago. The young man returns to their St. Tropez home to announce he is getting married. To a girl.
And worse yet, she is the daughter of a zealous right wing politician of the TFM (Tradition-Family-Morality) Party. Embarrassed by the “mother” who brought him up, Jean-Michel wants Albin absent when his imminent in-laws come for a visit. Whether or not Herman chose to musicalize this story for its sexual politics, the plot has eerie similarities to one of his earlier triumphs, Mame.
Besides Herman’s bombastic, eminently hummable score, the show is stuffed with flashy production numbers at Georges’ nightclub, featuring a half-dozen leggy chorus dancers – Les Cagelles. Even if your attitude towards the gay community is less celebratory than this show’s, there is plenty of entertainment within it, as well as an old-fashioned tribute to parenthood.
Still, La Cage is hardly an easy show to pull off and MNM’s effort is uneven at best. As with many of the company’s productions, this one features strength in its leading roles and less than stellar support from the rest of the sizeable ensemble.
Michael Ursua, the former musical director of The Wick Theatre, fills the ankle straps, corset and bugle-beaded gowns of Albin’s alter ego Zaza with panache, singing with power, demonstrating a fine comic flair and a frequent sad sack expression. He could have used more anger in his first act finale, the anthem of liberation “I Am What I Am,” but that is a relative quibble.
As Georges, “the plain homosexual,” Larry Alexander has a more musical singing voice than the part requires and he moves quite well. If he takes a back seat to Ursua’s Albin, that is all but built into the material.
Director Kimberly Dawn Smith has devised some athletic and acrobatic choreography for the Cagelles. Although they sing of being “an illusion,” you will have no difficulty identifying which of them are male and which are female. Clay Cartland is a tad too old for 26-year-old Jean-Michel and the straight-laced role offers the performer no opportunity to demonstrate his zany side. Elijah Word, on the other hand, is way over the top as Jacob, the household’s maid/butler.
Casey Blanton distills the show’s numerous locales into a unit set, albeit with a central staircase that proves a challenge for the many entrances and exits. MNM solves the show’s considerable costume demands by renting from a theater company in Chatham, N.Y. The company’s resident music director Paul Reekie shows why he is such a crucial part of the operation, getting a reliably soaring sound from his seven-piece band.
MNM may have overreached in its show choice this time, but La Cage aux Folles packs a punch that comes through despite the production’s shortfalls.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, MNM Productions at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Oct. 22. $45. 561-832-7469.