Review by Liz Baldwin
When La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway in 1983, it was a groundbreaking production – the first to feature a gay couple as its romantic leads, and a smash hit. Forty years later, the musical – like its central characters – is entering middle age in triumphant style. The new Australian production directed by Riley Spadaro, playing now at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, is a gorgeous tribute to this beloved show.
Musical theatre revivals can be challenging propositions – as Michael Paulson has observed in the New York Times, they also revive the stereotypes of the era in which they were written. In contrast, La Cage aux Folles feels remarkably fresh. It centres on a gay couple – one the manager (Georges, played by Michael Cormick), the other the star (Albin/Zaza, played by Paul Capsis) of a Saint-Tropez drag club. The couple’s son (Jean-Michel, played by Noah Mullins) announces that he’s getting married, much to his parents’ dismay: as Albin laments, ‘our only son getting married! Where did we go so wrong?’. Even worse, the father of Jean-Michel’s fiancée is an ultra-conservative politician who has vowed to shut down the drag clubs in the region. Love, family loyalty, and interior decorating are tested in the shenanigans that ensue.
Spadaro’s production was well-paced and engagingly structured. The show was anchored by big set-piece performances from Zaza and The Cagelles at La Cage aux Folles - impressive, larger-than-life numbers featuring increasingly complex dance routines, acrobatics, stunning costumes and make-up. But these were interspersed with more intimate songs and scenes of family life, giving the show its depth and heart.
The cast’s performances were strong across the board, although - refreshingly - the older generation had richer characters and stories to work with. Michael Cormick and Paul Capsis were well-matched, bringing rich voices, an assured stage presence and wonderful chemistry to their roles. Paul Capsis was particularly captivating: his performance of Albin’s hurt at being excluded from the pre-wedding dinner provided the emotional heart to a show that could otherwise have veered entirely into farce. Loredo Malcolm as Jacob, the couple’s butler/maid who dreams of being cast as a Cagelle, was also a regular scene stealer, with brilliant physical comedy and timing.
The staging was simple and effective – cast members wheeled costume racks, lamp posts and statues of the Virgin Mary on and off the shallow stage as needed. Short interstitial performances in front of the lowered curtain while scenes were being changed ensured the momentum wasn’t lost. Just behind the action sat the excellent orchestra, ably led by musical director Craig Renshaw.
This excellent production deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. The joy in the room was palpable - the audience was dressed to the nines and clearly thrilled to be there, screaming with laughter at every inside joke and arch reference. Get along to this celebration of love, inclusivity and performance while you can!