Radiating charisma and chemistry, star duo Simon Burke and Todd McKenney fit La Cage aux Folles like it was written especially for them.
Just over thirty years old, the musical retains all its zest, sparkle and timeliness. The shudder and laugh that swept through the opening night audience at the mention of Dindon’s “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” illustrates the ongoing relevance of Harvey Fierstein’s gently provocative book. Long before it was a hot button issue, Albin and Georges had the very model of a modern gay marriage, child and all. In this regard, the decision to set the show in present day makes good sense.
Amidst the glitter and be gay merriment, director Dean Bryant has successfully focused on the heart of the story, creating believable, affecting family connections between the gaggle of endearing characters. The choice to allow traces of Australian accents is questionable and some “meta” ad-libs are unnecessary, but when Fierstein’s original zingers are trusted the show really flies. The comfort, warmth and affection that Bryant has facilitated certainly belie the short rehearsal period.
Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth has outdone himself with wit and invention. Eschewing the usual Can-Can theme, Hallsworth has completely re-invented the big act one “La Cage aux Folles” number with an aquatic theme that is not only spectacular, delightful and downright funny, but also makes perfect sense with the St Tropez location of the club. Hallsworth also adds an effective layer of history as Georges reminisces about his youth with Albin while Jean-Michel sings “With Anne On My Arm.”
Infused with his trademark sunny optimism, Jerry Herman’s infinitely hummable score is as appealing as ever. The full Orchestra Victoria treatment would have been appreciated, but if the eight-piece band is an aspect of staging the show in the relatively more intimate Playhouse then the trade off is worth it. All of the audience are afforded a clear view of the eye-popping wigs and sequins, and the climactic sight of the “disguised” Dindon family packs its full comic punch.
Musical director Mathew Frank keeps Herman’s infectious score peppy and bright, cleverly replacing some of the missing instruments with a very well programmed synthesizer. On the basis of the concept from the 2008 Menier Chocolate Factory revival, the reduced band sound makes sense in terms of the nightclub being a somewhat seedy, smaller budget venue rather than a flashy, glamorous nightspot.
With the band housed upstage, the numerous set changes of Dale Ferguson’s scenic design brings the production far closer to a fully staged show than a concert. Matt Scott’s luscious lighting design significantly enhances the stage picture, bathing the space in deep delicious shades of blue, pink and red.
Owen Phillips has put together a cavalcade of costumes that are lavish, witty and attractive. In keeping with the scaled-down vibe, these are not the massive showgirl ostrich-feathered numbers, but Phillips makes up with invention anything that is missing in scale. Zaza’s clam dress is a scream and her mermaid gown is divine. With all the focus on glamour, it would be easy to neglect daywear, but Phillips gets this right as well.
Benjamin Moir’s mighty wigs are practically a star in their own right. Immaculately coiffured, these stylings add the perfect finishing touch to the presentation. The selections for the final “disguise” sequence are hilariously outlandish.
In a powerhouse performance brimming with warmth and heart, McKenney is a superb Albin. Keeping his characterisation far away from stereotype and caricature, McKenney wins our hearts and lands all the emotional notes. His wonderful singing in the role is an added luxury.
Burke exudes a twinkling charm as Georges, subtly allowing McKenney, in the showier role, to enjoy more of the spotlight. The pair enjoys terrific chemistry, and they successfully create a knowing shorthand and deep affection between Georges and Albin. Burke appears very ill at ease as Georges acts as Emcee in the opening sequence, put proves much more at home for the remaining scenes. Also a truly gorgeous singer, Burke’s rendition of “Song on the Sand” is a tender highlight.
As the effervescent Jacqueline, Rhonda Burchmore is the next-door neighbour everyone would love to have. It is always a party when Jacqueline is on the scene. Garry Sweet and Marg Downey are great sports as the conservative Dindons. Sweet embraces the full spectrum of ugly sexism and homophobia of the role. Downey displays a surprisingly fine soprano.
In the tradition of The Production Company discovering and exposing significant new talent, it is great to see two very impressive relative newcomers in featured roles. Robert Tripolino (seen earlier this year as an insecure jock in Calvin Berger) gives a breakout performance as Georges’ son Jean-Michel. An ideal young leading man, the handsome Tripolino has a natural, unaffected presence, and particularly impresses with his fine singing voice. Unrecognisable from her starring role as Carrie, Emily Milledge is delightfully sweet and winsome as Jean-Michel’s fiancée Anne.
Aljin Abella practically steals the show as outrageous butler maid Jacob. Consistently working at his energy level possible, Abella lands all his laughs and earns plenty of spontaneous rounds of applause along the way.
The six Cagelles are impeccably cast, each of them not only stunning in appearance but also accomplished dancers and singers in their own right. The control and precision of the near-nude feather ballet in “La Cage aux Folles” could not be bettered on Broadway. Brava to Josh Gates, Wil King, Adam Noviello, Taylor Scanlan, Anthony Sheppard and Kyle Stevens.
La Cage aux Folles plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 7 December 2014.
From The Production Company’s Season 2014, Man in Chair also reviewed:
Martin Crewes and Verity Hunt Ballard in Guys and Dolls
Gareth Keegan and Alinta Chidzey in Show Boat
Photos: Jeff Busby