‘La Cage Aux Folles’
Through July 10
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
Tickets start at $40
Signature Theatre’s production of “La Cage Aux Folles,” so confidently staged by out director Matthew Gardiner, falls right in line with composer Jerry Herman’s (“Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame”) cheery career intent of making people happy.
From the leads’ palpable chemistry to a café table’s yellow umbrella trimmed with magical fairy lights, it elicits bubbly bursts of joy. The top-notch cast elevates Harvey Fierstein’s campy but sincere libretto, and accompanied by an energetic orchestra led by Darius Smith reinvigorates Herman’s familiar score (“I Am What I Am,” “The Best of Times”).
“La Cage” opened on Broadway in 1983 and won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. It’s based on the 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, which in turn was inspired the popular French film and a successful American version, “The Birdcage.”
The story centers on suave Georges (the perfectly cast Brent Barrett), a San Tropez nightclub owner and his longtime lover, Albin (Bobby Smith), who as Zsa Zsa headlines the boite’s drag show. Together Georges, Albin and Jean Michel (Paul Scanlan), Georges’ son from a long-ago one-night stand, have lived happily on the Riviera as a family unit. But things take a turn when the young man announces his engagement to Anne (Jessica Lauren Ball), the sweet and open-minded daughter of an abrasive right-wing politician. He then asks his parents to play it straight for the in-laws. Mayhem and hilarity ensue.
In addition to directing, Gardiner is also choreographer. Numbers performed by the nightclub’s drag chorus, Les Cagelles, are a sensational nod to yesteryear with tap combinations, kick lines and high flying jumps that land in full splits. Occasionally a drag queen’s headdress slips or shoe flies, but these girls — all fabulously costumed in retro-showgirl mode by Frank Labovitz — always finish in style. Famous for singing “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion,” Les Cagelles are typically depicted in varying degrees of realness depending on the production. Here, of the six chorines, all are passable from Row D center, except the purposely and amusingly butch Phaedra (Phil Young).
Because “La Cage” is in many ways a backstage story, set designer Lee Savage smartly takes us into the performers’ world. On each side of the filigree framed proscenium stage with Austrian-scalloped curtain and shell-covered footlights, the audience gets a glimpse offstage where the boy dancers are transforming themselves into fabulous showgirls. Upstairs Georges and Albin’s more-gaudy-than-grand flat features chandeliers, busy wallpaper, a bright blue chaise and a 10-foot stature of David.
As Albin, out actor Bobby Smith does some of his finest work ever. The part allows him to tap all of his talents — comedy, agility, acting and singing. His Albin is dramatic and sometimes petty, but always human and caring. His drag is old school glamour — think mature Arlene Dahl at a world premiere in Monte Carlo. But when things get rough, he doffs his wig and sings the anthem “I Am What I Am.” It’s a standalone song stirringly delivered with a real core of strength and courage in place of Zsa Zsa’s artifice.
The supporting cast includes DJ Petrosino as Jacob, the lisping, scantily clad, high heel-wearing butler who longs to get in the drag show. A very dignified and Gallic-looking Mitchell Hébert plays Anne’s overbearing father Edouard Dindon, and Sherri L. Edelen as his fun-starved wife, Marie. Nova Y. Payton plays Jacqueline, the diva owner of a nearby restaurant.
You won’t find the complexity of Sondheim here. “La Cage” is an old fashioned, feel-good show. And in light of Orlando, this LGBT life- and love-affirming musical is a timely thing.