Tuesday, April 25, 2023

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES - State Theatre, Sydney


Paul Capsis (Albin) - Michael Cormick (Georges) in "La Cage aux Folles"

Book: Harvey Fierstein – Music and Lyrics: Jerry Herman

Director: Riley Spadaro – Musical Director: Craig Renshaw

Choreography: Veronica Beattie George – Costume Design & Associate: Josef Koda

Set Design: Grace Deacon – Sound Design: Anthony Lorenz

Produced by David M. Hawkins – Showtune Productions.

State Theatre Sydney:  20th – 24th April. 2023

Opening night 20th April 2023 reviewed by BILL STEPHENS .

Les Cagelles in Davod M.Hawkins production of "La Cafe aux Folles"

The terrifying costs involved in producing a musical these days have condemned this delightful production to short, sharp seasons. Seasons too short for the show to gain any real traction with audiences, because by the time they hear about it, it’s already closed.

This is certainly the case with this production. By the time word got out about how good it was, it’s short premiere season at the Concourse in Chatswood had already finished. So to satisfy the pleas of those who missed out first time around, the producer, David M.Hawkins mounted this second season in the splendid, though cavernous, State Theatre in Sydney.

The choice of the right theatre can often be the difference between success and failure of a production. This modest production worked so well in the much smaller Concourse Theatre in Chatswood. Would it be swamped by the chandeliered magnificence of the State Theatre?   

This was the question that made a revisit irresistible. .

Premiered on Broadway in 1983, “La Cage aux Folles” was first seen in Australia in 1985 in a lavish production starring Keith Michell as Georges, and Jon Ewing as Albin. Surprisingly this is the first professional production mounted in Sydney since then.

Surprising, not only because it contains one of Jerry Herman’s most memorable scores, a succession of hit tunes including “A Little More Mascara”, “Song on the Sand”, “Look Over There”, “The Best of Times”, and of course, the song that has become a gay anthem, “I Am What I Am”, all given terrific treatment by Craig Renshaw and his superb band,  but also because of the subject matter which still feels as fresh, funny and heartfelt  as it did  back in 1985.

Georges and Albin are a homosexual couple who live as a family with their son Jean-Michel in an apartment above their gay nightclub, La Cage aux Folles.

Chloe Malek (Anne Dindon) - Noah Mullins (Jean-Michel) - Paul Capsis (Albin)
Zoe Ventoura (Marie Dindon) - Peter Phelps (Edouard Dindon).

Jean-Michel is the product of an exploratory one-night stand between Georges and a showgirl.  When Jean-Michelle announces that he has become engaged to a girl, both Georges and Albin are shocked, but particularly Albin, who regards himself as Jean-Michel’s mother. Albin's reaction at the news is “Oh Georges, where did we go wrong?”

Jean-Michel’s choice, it turns out, is not just any girl, but the daughter of a well-known, fiercely right-wing politician, Edouard Dindon.  Jean-Michelle is keen for Georges to meet his fiancé and her family  so when he requests that Albin  absent himself from the occasion, in favour of Georges inviting Jean-Michelle’s birth-mother so as to present ‘a normal family’ to the Dindons, Albin is outraged and refuses to co-operate.

Their attempts to solve this impasse result in the show dissolving into a hilarious French farce as Albin, Georges and Jean-Michelle struggle to resolve the endless complications resulting from their situation.   

Right, but how does Showtune’s modest production survive in the State Theatre?

Well, judging on the response of the first-night audience, surprisingly well.

For one thing, much of the show is set in a night club, so, Grace Deacon’s use of velvet drapes for much of her setting, merges very well with the opulence of the State Theatre. Her stripped back solutions for the scenes in the apartment, dressing room and backstage however look a bit sparse. Compensations however are provided by Josef Koda’s splendid costumes, and the thrilling dance routines devised by Veronica Beattie George and brilliantly performed by Les Cagelles. The opening number, and another in which Les Cagelles manipulate pink feather fans to suggest ostriches, are especially memorable.

Director, Riley Spadaro has taken advantage of the opportunities offered by some minor cast changes to revise and sharpen his direction. But it is the impressive casting which makes this show fly, led by two of Australia’s most accomplished and experienced musical theatre performers for whom huge theatres hold no terrors.

Michael Cormick as Georges in "La Cafe aux Folles"

Handsome, suave and in superb voice, Michael Cormick is perfectly cast as Georges, the Manager and Master of Ceremonies at La Cage aux Folles.  Costumed in a succession of glittering tuxedos, oozing confidence and savoir faire, his authoritative performances of some of Jerry Herman’s loveliest melodies are a particular joy.

Paul Capsis (Albin) singing "I Am What I Am" in "La Cage aux Folles"

Similarly, Paul Capsis brings additional nuance and warmth to his already distinctive interpretation of Albin creating a brittle, highly combustible, funny and ultimately very moving characterisation that lights up the stage on his every entrance and makes it impossible to take your eyes off him. It’s a star performance that deserves to be seen widely.

An all-star cast fill the supporting roles. Both, Anthony Brandon Wong as the cheeky maid/butler, Jacob, and Lucia Matrantone as both the hassled stage-manager, Francis, and the over-friendly restauranteur, Jacqueline, delight with their outrageous comedic performances.

Noah Mullins and Chloe Malik charm with their affecting youthful naivety as Jean-Michel and his twirly-whirly fiancée, Anne. Zoe Ventoura delights with her funny, classy performance as Anne’s stitched up mother bursting to kick up her heels, and Peter Phelps revels in his turn as the pompous politician, Edouard Dindon.

The enthusiastic reception given by the first-night audience provided tacit  justification of the success of the production no matter the size of the theatre, so hopefully, if negotiations presently in train to tour the production widely come to fruition, it might even come your way.  If it does, try not to miss it. 

Les Cagelles in "La Cage aux Folles"

Images by John McRae.

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.