Left – Todd McKenney and Simon Burke. Cover – Todd McKenney and Les Cagelles.
The history of La Cage Aux Folles goes back over 40 years to Paris where the original writer and star Jean Poiret presented a small play that only had a single set. The show became a box office hit, which in turn became one of the highest grossing foreign language films of the late 70s.
Eventually the story was re-worked into a Broadway musical, which ran for four years and won six Tony Awards. In the 90s a film version (The Bird Cage), based on the original play, starred Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, and this is what most non-musical audiences will remember.
So why has this comedy had so many incarnations? It centres on an ageing gay couple who run a nightclub and live in St Tropez. Their son has announced that he is marrying (a girl), and her ultra conservative parents want to arrange a meeting.
The musical, like the original story, hit a chord with audiences. Even though the musical version came out at the peak of the AIDS crisis, the touching story was timeless. It spoke of unconditional love, family, and yes, even moral values.
It also had a remarkable creative team with original director Arthur Laurents, Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and a beautiful book by Harvey Fierstein. Fierstein was the toast of Broadway at the time having just written and starred in the ground-breaking Torch Song Trilogy.
The longevity of this show is linked to these people.
The Production Company has waited some time to bring a professional production back to Melbourne audiences, and have been rewarded with a healthy pre-opening Box Office success.
They have also been able to lure an enviable list of established performers to appear in the show. Gary Sweet (Dindon), Marg Downey (Marie Dindon) and Rhonda Burchmore (Jacqueline) all seem to be having fun with their roles. Rhonda's impressive legs by the way, almost deserve their own review! Newcomers Emily Milledge (Anne) and Robert Tripolino (as a charming Jean Michel) both stand out amongst the seasoned performers, while Aljin Abella does his utmost to steal most of the scenes he is in as the 'maid' Jacob.
Untimately though, the success of any production rests on the casting and performances of the leading men – Albin/ZaZa and Georges – here played by Todd McKenney and Simon Burke – and they very nearly hit the mark.
McKenney, well known for his star-making performance in The Boy from Oz, plays Albin with a little too much gusto and not enough femininity. However, when ZaZa appears, the transformation is remarkable and 'she' looks and sounds great. ZaZa's banter with the audience is an hilarious break in the storyline, and McKenney also gives the show's anthem I Am What I Am a resounding closure to Act One.
Burke doesn't always appear comfortable in the solo moments, but then blows you away when he sings some of Herman's great tunes – none more so than Look Over There. Burke remains a fine performer, with an under-rated singing voice.
Of course the Cagelles are the other 'stars' of the show and the six boys are all stunning girls (when it counts).
The successful double-act of Dean Bryant (director) and Andrew Hallsworth (choreographer) continues with this production, with the action moving along at a brisk pace. However some of the creative choices/changes do not always work. Having the Cagelles onstage as boys as the audience enters, leading into We Are What We Are, lessens the impact and takes away their 'reveal'. Also the decision to use strong Australian accents is questionable. The show is set on the French Riviera, with everyone having French names. For this reviewer, it was jarring and unnecessary.
A smaller Orchestra Victoria under music director Matthew Frank sounded a treat in the Playhouse, nested at the rear of the set. La Cage is still a vastly enjoyable show and this production will please and remind us all about how relevant the story remains.
The Production Company presents
La Cage Aux Folles
by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman
Director Dean Bryant
Venue: The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 21 Nov – 7 December, 2014
Tickets: $24 – $119