By Barry Reszel
The suddenly hyper-public gender speculation of Olympic champion Bruce Jenner offers a certain strange relevance to Marriott Theater’s current production, La Cage aux Folles.
Perhaps it will allow those who see this production to feel greater compassion for the 1976 gold medal decathlete who may or may not be undergoing gender clarification or transformation. Because tender is the best word to describe Director Joe Leonardo‘s treatment of this La Cage…, the only work to win the Tony for Best Musical three times.
Based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret, the 1983 Harvey Fierstein book with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman is a bawdy spectacle featuring a Saint-Tropez gay couple, Georges and Albin. Georges manages a nightclub featuring drag entertainment; Albin is both his feminine partner as well as his fading, neurotic star attraction, the glamorous Zaza. The farce includes Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, who arrives with news of impending nuptials to the daughter of the French equivalent of Rush Limbaugh.
A full plot synopsis and history of the show’s highly decorated productions may be read here.
In Marriott’s presentation, big-voiced David Hess as Georges and audience favorite Gene Weygandt as Albin (who, truth be told, is not a pretty woman) lead this cast splendidly. For any emotional credibility to withstand the second act’s absurdity, La Cage‘s act one must sell patrons on Georges’ and Albin’s honest love for one another. Hess and Weygandt are the perfect salesmen, closing the deal with the lovely ballad, “Song on the Sand.”
It could be easy to lose that gentle truth in the midst of flamboyant, high kicking energy from Melissa Zaremba‘s impeccably choreographed “Les Cagelles,” who also offer terrific harmonies with choral precision (kudos to Music Director Ryan T. Nelson). But Leonardo doesn’t allow it. Still, deserving plaudits for their Ginger Rogers nods (everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels) are J. Tyler Whitmer, Raymond Interior, Adam Estes, Jordan Fife-Hunt, Clayton Cross, Zachary L. Gray and Jhardon DiShon Milton.
In addition to “Song on the Sand,” particular musical delights include “We Are What We Are,” Weygandt’s “I Am What I Am,” Hess’ “Look Over There” and the show’s “Finale.”
The final honoree in this production’s unforgettable category is Joseph Anthony Bird as butler…a-hem…maid Jacob, Albin’s doting domestic attendant. The part is played with the perfect amount of snark, sass and wherewithal. And to be fair, Bird has upper body muscles to make men envious and a set of gams most women would kill for.
Backstage plaudits go to Nancy Missimi for costuming deserving of Jeff Award consideration and Thomas M. Ryan for clever set design featuring frames and mirrors that help patrons be, well…reflective. Back onstage, leads in many other shows round out the talented ensemble, including Susan Moniz, Elizabeth Telford, Brian Bohr, Anne Gunn and Fred Zimmerman, among others.
If there’s a nit, it’s that the second act drags a bit (pun intended). While comedy abounds, particularly as Albin is taught to “man-up,” the pivotal scene of future in-laws gathering for the engagement meet-and-greet felt labored on opening night. The songbook is also fairly repetitive; it seems Herman enjoyed his work so much he insisted every song have a reprise or three. But these are but opinions of one.
All said, Marriott’s La Cage… is really a charming, rare occurrence where a tender love story trumps, albeit slightly, its accompanying bawdy spectacle. As his real-life story unfolds, may Bruce Jenner be as fortunate.
“La Cage aux Folles”‘ runs through March 22 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr, Lincolnshire, with performances Wednesdays at 1 pm and 8 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 1 pm and 5 pm. Ticket prices range from $50 to $55, with discounts available for seniors and students. Dinner-theatre packages are also available. Parking is free. Information and Tickets are available at the Marriott Theatre Box Office, 847-634-0200 or www.MarriottTheatre.com.