Despite it’s spectacular, high-camp staging and great central performance, the latest revival of the 1983 drag musical, ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ is a bit of a missed political opportunity, says Brian Finnegan.
The last time I saw a production of the musical La Cage Aux Folles was in the 90s, and back then its odd mix of diversity championing and gender stereotyping seemed old-fashioned, as did its hit song, the iconic freedom-cry, ‘I Am What I Am’. Based on the 1973 French play of the same name, which was filmed in France in 1978 (and then got the American treatment in 1996 with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane camping it up in The Birdcage), the musical version debuted on Broadway in 1983, just at the beginning of the Aids crisis, which brought the wrath of conservative America down on gay liberation. With a book by Harvey Fierstein (Hairspray, Kinky Boots) and songs by Jerry Hermann (Hello Dolly!), it’s the story of a happy gay couple facing down the tyranny of a conservative politician, whose daughter wants to marry their son, and at the same time an exploration of drag, both in terms of performance and meaning, particularly to drag performers themselves.
My Problem With La Cage Aux Folles
The problem with La Cage (for me anyway) is that while the couple at its heart, Albin and Georges, vocally reject gender norms and challenge the patriarchy, their relationship affirms both, as does the musical itself, which only uses women as a kind of prop to tell a story about men being men (while indulging their femininity at the same time). Georges is the manager of La Cage Aux Folles, a St Tropez nightclub featuring extravagant drag performances. His partner of 20 years, Albin is the club’s star attraction under the alias of Zaza. The action kicks off when Georges’ son Jean-Michel tells him he’s marrying Ann, the daughter of an right-wing politician who wants to shut down all the drag clubs in St Tropez. Desperate to make a good impression, Jean-Michel wants Georges to pretend to be heterosexual when meeting Ann’s parents, and that means pushing Albin out of the picture. Albin, a hysteric at the best of times, doesn’t take this lightly, and farce ensues.
For a show that pushes such a pro-gay political agenda, La Cage is steeped in gay stereotypes, even to the point where Georges sets out to teach the effeminate Albin to behave like a straight man, and Albin (who is otherwise unapologetically himself) acquiesces, leading to as much comedy that can be squeezed from camp guys trying to butch it up as is humanly possible. ‘I Am What I Am’, which Albin sings with high emotion just before the closing of the first act, therefore loses all its power, and while the denouement might rescue his identity, it does so after his humiliation.
Partridge’s Entertaining Performance
It may sound like I’m totally down on La Cage Aux Folles, but the Bill Kenwright production that’s currently playing in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre manages to transcend the show’s contradictions, and that’s mainly through John Partridge’s massively entertaining performance as Albin/Zaza, and a chorus of dancing drag queens in a series of costumes so eye-popping, all else fades into insignificance, including a dodgy performance from Adrian Zmed (who sings 80% of the songs) as Georges, an underused Marti Webb as neighbouring restaurant owner Jacqueline, and a barely audible Paul F Monaghan as the right-wing politician, Dindon.
The latter casting is a disappointment, given the times we live in. Dindon never seems powerful, in the way that a certain bombastic far-right winger who is about to become President of America seems to be, and therefore the conflict between far-right and centre-left, between angry traditionalism and optimistic liberalism, that La Cage is really about doesn’t properly play out. There are spectacular costumes, songs you can clap along to, lots of good old fashioned, high-kick choreography, glitter, glamour and plenty of big laughs along the way, but considering the political theme that’s its bedrock, this version of La Cage is a bit of a missed opportunity.
‘La Cage Aux Folles’ runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until Saturday, tickets here.