Saturday, December 3, 2016

"The Best of Times" Celebrated at City Theater Company

By Guest Blogger, Mike Logothetis
Mike Logothetis grew up in North Wilmington, performing in school and local theater productions.  He lives in Newark, but you can find him wherever the arts are good.

La Cage aux Follles is a 1983 musical based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret. While we are firmly living in 2016, the book (Harvey Fierstein) coupled with the  lyrics and music (Jerry Herman) and the spirited direction (City Theater Company's Producing Artistic Director Michael Gray) keep this production on the edge of contemporary. Yes, it is a “period piece” of sorts, but in this case, the “period” just sets the era and location – not the themes, pace, dialog, emotion or zaniness of it all.

La Cage Aux Folles cast. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.
The show focuses on a gay couple: Georges, the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, his romantic partner and star attraction. The story begins in the titular nightclub with the audience as patrons. Georges (Paul McElwee) is emcee and host, creating a rapport with those of us still finding our seats and settling in for an evening of entertainment.

The chorus line known as Les Cagelles appear and introduce themselves to the audience through the first number, We Are What We Are. This rousing song and dance number features electric movement and snappy costume changes that will have you clapping along.  William Bryant, Zach DeBevac, Andrew Dean Laino, and Christian Ryan all play drag queens with gusto, charm, smiles and, dare I say, athleticism.

We retreat to an upstairs apartment to meet Albin (Patrick O’Hara), who is the star performer at La Cage aux Folles under the stage name, “Zaza.” We glimpse the central relationship between Georges and Albin through a sweet back-and-forth dialog and the introspective song, [A Little More] Mascara.

Joy, despair and confusion ensue when Georges’ son Jean-Michel (Zachary J. Chiero) delivers the news that he is engaged (to a woman!). Georges is reluctant to approve of Jean-Michel’s engagement, but Jean-Michel assures his father that he is in love with Anne Dindon (Grace Tarves) through the tender With Anne on My Arm. Unfortunately, her father is head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party,” whose stated goal is to close drag clubs and the like.

Anne’s parents wish to meet their future in-laws, but Jean-Michel has lied to his fiancĂ©e, describing Georges as a (straight) retired diplomat and not mentioning Albin at all. Jean-Michel convinces his father to partner in the lie and wants to include his birth mother at the gathering. Attempts to break the news to Albin covers two quieter songs (With You on My Arm and Song on the Sand), but before Georges can deliver Jean-Michel’s wishes, Albin runs off to the stage.

Zaza electrifies the stage and the audience performing La Cage aux Folles\, while Georges and Jean-Michel quickly redecorate the house in a more modest style. While Albin is changing for his next number, he notices the two and demands to know what is going on. Georges tells Albin of Jean-Michel’s plan and, in an odd twist, Albin re-joins Les Cagelles onstage, then sending them off as he sings the defiant solo I Am What I Am to end Act I.

Even though the show is a modern farce, Les Cagelles act as comic relief along with butler/maid Jacob (Adam Pierce Montgomery) and stage manager Francis (Dylan Geringer). How does comic relief work in a comedy? You have to see the show to fully understand that absurdity must be meted in portions, lest it become overbearing.  Suffice to say, super-over-the-top Jacob is a scene-stealer as both a servant and a club dancer.

The cabaret songs are all energetic numbers which exist to entertain while the emotional music is downplayed to add gravitas and investigation into the characters’ minds. The Joe Trainer-led “Birdcage Band” is excellent in both setting the mood and reacting to the emotion brought forth by the actors on stage. The musicians are part of the set when the audience is at La Cage aux Folles, but are cleverly hidden when the scene demands deeper character interaction.  Vicki Neal and Richard A. Kendrick have created a simple, yet elegant set that allows for up-close dynamic action as well as space between characters to represent both emotional and physical distance.  The stage lighting can convey a pulsing nightclub or a quiet room and works well in the space of The Black Box.

Act II finds Georges apologizing to Albin (Song on the Sand [Reprise]) and then suggesting that Albin should dress up as “Uncle Al” to be a part of the family dinner. Albin reluctantly agrees to act like a heterosexual for Jean-Michel, leading to some of the funniest physical and lyrical humor in the show. With the help of Monsieur and Madame Renaud (Greg Tigani and Mary Catherine Kelley), Georges successfully(?) teaches Albin to abandon his flamboyancy (Masculinity).  Jean-Michel doesn’t like the idea, but Georges angrily reminds him what a good “mother” Albin has been to him (Look Over There).

Just as Anne’s parents (Tigani and Kelley in different roles) arrive, the hosts receive a telegram that Jean-Michel’s mother won’t be joining them (Dishes [Cocktail Counterpoint]). Hoping to save the day, Albin appears as Jean-Michel’s mother. Nervous and unreliable Jacob has burned the dinner, so a trip to an elite local restaurant, owned by close friend Jacqueline (Kerry Kristine McElrone), is arranged without explaining the situation to her.  Jacqueline theatrically asks Albin (as Zaza) for a song, to which he hesitantly agrees (The Best of Times).  Everyone in the restaurant begins to take part in the song, causing Albin to yield to the frenzy of performance and tear off his wig at the song’s climax, revealing his true identity.

Arguments, comedy, and confusion are unleashed, while Jean-Michel begins to feel ashamed of the way he has treated Albin and asks his forgiveness (Look Over There [Reprise]), which is lovingly granted. However, the Dindons vow to cancel the wedding and prepare to depart, but their way is blocked by Jacqueline, who has arrived with the press – ready to photograph the notorious anti-homosexual activists with Zaza. Through a clever plan and impeccable timing and luck, the Dindons escape with their reputation intact and their daughter’s marriage to Jean-Michel validated. With everyone gone, Albin and Georges briefly sing of their love for each other before sharing a kiss (Finale [With You On My Arm/La Cage aux Folles/Song on the Sand/The Best Of Times]).

The show is a delight in script, music, pacing and topical humor. The physical comedy and clever wordplay will have audiences laughing heartily. Technically, this is a musical that needs to be tight – and it is. The effort put into set design, cast, direction, music, lighting and production camaraderie are evident in the final product. With over a 2-hour running time, I just wish I had brought a cushion for my seat.

The production of La Cage aux Folles runs through December 17 in The Black Box on the Wilmington waterfront (4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE 19801). Tickets cost $20-28, but the cabaret-style set includes a limited number of upgraded seats – known as “Birdcage Seats.”  These seats are situated on platforms on either side of the theater, affording patrons a “bird's eye view” of all the dazzling stage action, complimentary table snacks and complimentary drink tickets per person. Advance purchase of these seats is advised.  Cost of Birdcage Seats is $40 per ticket (select “VIP” option at online purchase).


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