By Perry Tannenbaum
For anyone who has watched Steve Bryan over the years – in local musicals that include Jesus Christ Superstar, The Producers, Annie, Cinderella, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bye Bye Birdie, Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, Chicago, and Ruthless! – little more needs to be said about the excellence of Theatre Charlotte’s current production of La Cage aux Folles besides confirming that he’s playing one of the leads. Nobody in a homegrown musical has come close to matching the hilarity of Bryan’s cross-dressing exploits since 1995, when he portrayed the mysterious Sylvia St. Croix, talent agent for the fiercely talented, in Ruthless! After his bravura in La Cage as Albin and his cabaret alter ego, Zaza, it’s fairly safe to say that Bryan’s supremacy has been renewed for another 20 years.
Along with the leggy cross-dressing dancers behind him, the notorious Cagelles, Zaza is the prime attraction at La Cage, the St. Tropez club managed and emceed by Georges, his longtime husband. All is well, except for the difficulty Georges has in persuading Albin that Zaza is growing too old to impersonate the diva roles of her youth. Then Georges learns that his 24-year-old son Jean-Michel, the fruit of a one-night descent into heterosexuality, is planning to get married – to a woman!
That’s not the worst of it. Jean-Michel’s prospective bride, Anne, is the daughter of the notoriously righteous Edouard Dindon, leader of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, sworn to the destruction of such dens of sin as La Cage. To make matters worse, the Dindons are all coming over to visit in order to size up their daughter’s possible in-laws before approving her engagement. Nothing less than an elaborate masquerade, Jean-Michel believes, can succeed in securing Monsieur Dindon’s consent.
So the set-up calls for a transformation of the lewdly decorated apartment and a reconfiguration of Jean-Michel’s family. These miraculous transformations need to occur at a speed never attempted by HGTV.
Our first encounter with Albin ratchets up our expectations of how funny this will all be, for he hasn’t begun transforming himself into the incomparable Zaza, and she’s already been introduced onstage. Moving quickly and making snap decisions aren’t Albin’s way. Far from immune from a diva’s prime attribute, Albin is also highly temperamental.
So breaking each one of Jean-Michel’s sensible demands to Albin, heartless and craven though they may be, becomes an opportunity for detonating a fresh comedy bombshell. Beyond these, scriptwriter Harvey Fierstein gets additional mileage out of Albin’s insulted sulking. Even then, Fierstein isn’t through milking laughs from the frantic preparations. The compromise between Georges and Albin yields an uproarious shtick. Instead of slinking away into seclusion, Albin will be allowed to masquerade as Jean-Michel’s Uncle Al. But this flaming queen must submit to tutoring from Georges on how to walk, talk, and hold a coffee cup with a semblance of masculinity.
Bryan does these shticks as well as any La Cage diva I’ve seen, including those in the last two Broadway revivals. What truly sets Bryan apart is the freedom director Dennis Delamar gives him to go wild as Zaza. Coming on to audience members in the front rows of the Queens Road barn is merely the beginning of Bryan’s blandishments. Turning his impressionist jets on, Bryan lampoons Carol Channing, Edith Piaf, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Ethel Merman, and – likely garnished by the medium of Carol Burnett – the husky vamping of either Martha Raye or Tallulah Bankhead.
More elaborate than any of these are the dollops of Marilyn Monroe. At one point, Delamar has somebody sliding an electric fan onstage so that Bryan’s dress can simulate the famous flutter from The Seven Year Itch. Otherwise, the comedy is administered as written, with Matt Kenyon as the other chief perpetrator in the role of Jacob. Smitten by the showbiz bug, Jacob is the household maid chez Georges & Albin – or their bewigged butler when the Dindons come calling. Kenyon makes sure we delight in all Jacob’s duplicity, opportunism, corruption, and immaturity.
Ideal casting, such as we find in Bryan and Kenyon, isn’t what we expect at community theatre, but it has become fairly routine at Theatre Charlotte in recent years. Delamar likely had an interesting choice at auditions when hopefuls read for the role of the debonair Georges. Filling a role that has been played by Gene Barry and Kelsey Grammer, Delamar’s pick goes interestingly against the grain with Jon Jones, who is more adept at singing than acting.
Jones’s deficiencies as a schmoozer weighed most heavily at the beginning of the show, when the burden falls on Georges to welcome us to La Cage. But the beauty of Delamar’s decision – and Jerry Herman’s musical score – emerges when Jones digs into Georges’s two big ballads, wooing Albin in “Song on the Sand” and then reminding Jean-Michel of his stepfather’s virtues in “Look Over There.”
Perhaps distracted by a loose body microphone on opening night, Peter Basone as Minister Dindon was the only other performer who wasn’t all I’d desire. Hank Santos was a more sympathetic Jean-Michel than any I’d seen – I’m a bit ambivalent about that – and Allison O’Connor certainly helped to keep him that way as Anne, more than worthy of J-M despite her Dindon upbringing.
On the technical side, even the budget doesn’t betray this as a community effort, for Emily Hunter’s choreography and Kahei Shum’s costume designs are clearly overachievements, while Mike Wilkins’ musical direction, Matthew Emerson’s sets, and Victoria Fisher’s lighting are all spot-on. Les Cagelles consistently delighted and occasionally amazed, most notably Steven James as the S&M-flavored Hanna and Michael Juilliard with his Queen-of-the-Night falsetto as Chantal.
Attitudes have evolved greatly since 1983, when La cage aux Folles first opened on Broadway, and since 1988, when Theatre Charlotte last brought the show to town. In the intervening years, we may have caught up with what Fierstein truly intended in his adaptation of the play by Jean Poiret. If you head on over to Queens Road, you might also realize that this musical I once assumed was about tolerance is actually about family values. As Anne quickly discovers, there’s a huge difference between those who loudly talk the talk of family values and those who truly walk the walk.