Review by Daz Gale
A trip to the glorious Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park always comes with a degree of uncertainty, thanks to the weather. That was what happened on a very wet Tuesday when the planned press night of La Cage aux Folles had to be abandoned 45 minutes into the show as the rain became too heavy, making it unsafe for the performers to carry on (though this did create an additional laugh during the dialogue “It’s starting to rain”). A lot of schedule shuffling later and I was sat back inside (well, outside) the theatre for a second attempt – and with it came a sense of déjà vu (or should that be gayja vu). But would this production be worth all of that hassle or would the end result dampen my spirits?
The closing show of what has been a bold and certainly divisive season, this revival of La Cage aux Folles comes as the show celebrates its 40th anniversary. Based on the French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, the musical adaptation premiered on Broadway in 1983 and made its way to the West End in 1986. It has enjoyed multiple revivals over the years with the show's legacy continuing with each revival garnering a number of Tony and Olivier awards. It tells the story of couple Georges and Albin whose happy life is thrown into uncertainty when their son Jean-Michel announces he is getting married to the daughter of a man notorious for his disapproval of homosexuals. As the couple attempts to pass themselves off as various iterations of heterosexuals, themes of self-acceptance, prejudices, and what it truly means to be family are played out.
Harvey Fierstein’s writing remains as multifaceted and fascinating now as it did 40 years ago, perhaps even more so given recent attitudes towards members of the LGBTQIA+ community. What initially feels like a fairly harmless romp through the world of Georges’ St Tropez drag nightclub reveals itself to be far more nuanced as the real story starts to appear. With a shifting tone that manages to be frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious while sensitively conveying a more serious message, the way it portrays what is still such a huge problem in the world is consistently beautiful and heartwarming while featuring a real sense of poignancy in some of the more somber moments. To that extent, Fierstein’s writing is a thing of beauty, never wavering or faltering.
Tim Sheader’s direction brings something new to the classic show, allowing the stage to explode with splendour that extends into the audience. With staging notably different from the other productions in this season at the theatre as well as productions in recent years, there is something refreshing and grand about the glitz and glam of this staging. Colin Richmond’s set design manages to transition flawlessly through the various settings with a constant degree of quality. One of the jewels in the crown of any show is Open Air Theatre is the beautiful way the lighting hits the stage, particularly in the second act, and this is used to stunning effect this time around from Howard Hudson whose playful and varied choices in lighting adds another dimension of fun to the affair.
La Cage aux Folles is a big musical, with Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics more than standing the test of time. While the musical numbers may not be as frequent as you might expect in most musicals, they more than make up for the absence by ensuring they are all of the highest standards. Highlights include ‘With Anne On My Arm’ and the showstopper that is ‘The Best Of Times’. These musical numbers are brought to life thanks to Stephen Mear’s astonishing choreography which explodes on the stage in larger numbers including the glorious opening ‘We Are What We Are’ in what is a completely joyful sequence which sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the show.
There is of course one iconic number in La Cage aux Folles which has transcended beyond this musical to enjoy a life of its own. That is of course the completely iconic ‘I Am What I Am’. That falls to Carl Mullaney’s Albin to bring the house down as he closes out act one with a rendition of it. There are certain performances that are sure to stay with you long after you leave the theatre, and Mullaney’s performance of this song is surely one of them. From its quiet and deliberately wobbly start to its gradual build into a rousing finish, the care and consideration Mullaney takes on this number showed a real affinity for the story and managed to create a moment that demonstrates what theatre can do at its most powerful.
Carl Mullaney’s performance extended beyond that one number in a performance that took my breath away from start to finish. From his initial over-the-top appearance, camping it up as much as humanly possible, he is instantly captivating as Albin/Zaza. As Albin is asked to hide who he truly is for the sake of his own, his defiant attitude created an emotional watch. With incredible singing and phenomenal acting, Mullaney delivers one of the greatest character performances of the year in a portrayal full of authenticity and class.
Albin’s other half Georges is wonderfully played by Billy Carter who excels as a character who acts as the Master of ceremonies, engaging with his fellow cast members and the audience in a natural manner and always managing to blow us all away through his performance. Ben Culleton plays their son Jean-Michele in a role that brings a huge contrast to the show and whose choices threaten to shift the tone of the show completely. The way Culleton manages to navigate these changes from a character whose motives can not always seem the clearest is a testament to his own acting.
La Cage aux Folles features a cast who excel at every opportunity, no matter how small their role may be. Jordan Lee Davies is a standout as Chantal while Debbie Kurup is at her most fabulous in her turn as Jacqueline, amazingly managing to outdo her camp turn as Cher in The Cher Show and once again proving why she is one of the greatest talents in musical theatre. Shakeel Kimotho gives a scene-stealing performance as Jacob who seemed determined to give each and every member of the audience life with every slightest movement, facial expression and delivery of some truly cutting lines – and it worked, in what was one of my own personal highlights of the show. The role of Edward Dindon, usually played by John Owen-Jones, was at this performance played by understudy Craig Armstrong in a truly terrific performance of an undesirable character that again proved how vital swings, understudies and alternates are to theatre.
When the heavens opened on Tuesdays press night, I struggled to care (and anyone that has heard me squeal when it rains will know what a big deal that is). I had been thinking how this show had brought a bit of sunshine to a rainy day. When the show got cancelled mid-way through, I was devastated. My intense reaction and disappointment spoke volumes about how much I was loving the show. However, I hadn’t seen anything yet.
While the first 45 minutes set up the story with a lot of glamour and camp frivolity, it is the remainder of the show that unravels the layers and reveals La Cage aux Folles to be the beautiful story it is. A show whose themes were important in the 1980s and are possibly even more crucial now, this life-affirming and truly heartwarming musical is matched by its high quality and faultless production value. Open Air Theatre have definitely saved the best until last this season. From its sensational cast, stunning production and gorgeous story, this show was more than worth the wait and definitely worth getting wet for It’s safe to say I couldn’t have loved La Cage aux Folles more if I tried - each sparkle and each bangle.
La Cage aux Folles plays at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 16th September. Tickets from openairtheatre.com
Photos by Johan Persson and Mark Senior