Review: Message of 'La Cage aux Folles' is strongly delivered at Kravis Center

Correspondent

“La Cage aux Folles” is sequin-bedecked catnip to South Florida theaters. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre produced it in 2010, Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre in 2015. Now, another Palm Beach County-based theater company, MNM Productions, is offering its take on “La Cage” in its home at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse.

The show’s enduring popularity is understandable. Based on a 1973 French play (made into a movie in ’78), the 1983 musical is by Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jerry Herman (whose long list of credits includes “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”) and has a book by Tony winner Harvey Fierstein (who also wrote the books for “Newsies” and “Kinky Boots”).

The original production won the 1984 best musical Tony Award, and revivals in 2004 and 2010 both took the Tony as best musical revival (making “La Cage” the only musical to score that trifecta).

Herman’s score, which includes the rousing anthem “I Am What I Am” as well as the joyous “The Best of Times” and the tender “Song on the Sand,” is among his best. The message of respect for the enduring relationship of the central couple, nightclub owner Georges and his drag diva partner Albin, is a compelling one, particularly in this era of pushback against the gains achieved through the long struggle for gay rights. Besides, who doesn’t love a beautiful chorus boy in sequins, feathers and full drag hair and makeup?

Director-choreographer Kimberly Dawn Smith, who staged MNM’s successful productions of “Hair” and “Spamalot” at the Rinker, is again at the helm, with Paul Reekie as musical director and leader of the seven-piece band. The set, with its many levels and steps, is nothing to write home about, nor are the rented costumes, though Jason Tomasheski’s lighting bathes the stage in vibrant color for the nightclub scenes. Reekie, the musicians and the show’s singing actors, however, are better than their surroundings.

The situation in “La Cage,” should you have somehow never seen the show or “The Birdcage” (the set-in-South Beach movie remake), is that Georges (Larry Alexander) and Albin (Michael Ursua) are facing a family crisis.

Jean-Michel (Clay Cartland), the son they raised together after Georges had a one-night heterosexual stand, has become engaged to Anne Dindon (Kimmi Johnson), the girl of his dreams. Just one problem: Her politician father Edouard (Troy Stanley) is a beyond-conservative family-values crusader. Jean-Michel correctly assumes that the Dindons wouldn’t appreciate his parents’ unconventional lifestyle. But he makes the mistake of asking that Albin vanish during their visit, leading to painful, poignant lessons learned.

Albin, who performs as a drag diva named Zaza, is the show’s plum role, and Ursua makes the most of it. He sings beautifully, nails Zaza’s demanding temperament, and gets all the physical comedy of Albin’s futile attempts to butch up. His turn as Jean-Michel’s “mother” is assured and funny, and his vocal chemistry with Alexander’s handsome Georges makes for some lovely duet moments.

Some actors play Georges as a more conventional/traditional guy, the better to contrast him with Albin. But Alexander’s Georges has welcome grace notes of mischief and playful wit.

The most flamboyant role in “La Cage” is Jacob (Elijah Word), the butler and aspiring performer who serves Albin and Georges but insists they refer to him as their maid Claudine. Jacob may not have the career he wants — not yet — but he has a drag diva’s sass down cold. A string bean who towers over everyone else in his high heels, Word makes Diana Ross seem nondescript.

Cartland brings some physical verve to Jean-Michel and sings a touching tribute to Albin in the reprise of “Look Over There.” Johnson radiates wholesomeness as Anne and, eventually, the resolve she needs to stand up to her blustering father and eager-to-please mother, Marie (Patti Gardner). Aaron Bower is every inch the chic, clever beauty as Jacqueline, and Pierre Tannous is a low-key hoot as Francis, the stage manager whose romance with the fierce Hanna (Alex Jorth) is increasingly hazardous to his physical well-being.

The show’s six chorus Cagelles are played by four men (Jorth, Frank Vomero, AJ Cola, Keagan Tanner) and two women (Christie Rohr and Ashley Rubin). They’re generally decked out similarly (or identically), and part of the fun of “La Cage” is guessing the performers’ gender, which gets tougher if you’re sitting toward the back of the theater.

“La Cage aux Folles” is a wonderfully entertaining show with a strong score and an even stronger message, one that feels needed again and always. MNM’s production allows both the music and the message to be savored.

“La Cage aux Folles” runs through Oct. 22 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $45. To order, call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.

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