'La Cage aux Folles' at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire
Present reality means wind chill and snowpacks. Fortuitously, life is always a celebration with composer Jerry Herman on your arm. For that most helplessly optimistic of the Broadway songsmiths, the sand always runs warm, the waves remain gentle, and neither the passing years nor temporary lapses in judgment constitute any barrier to love.
I've seen "La Cage aux Folles" countless times since its first Broadway appearance in the early 1980s. The productions have, at times, been carelessly lavish or bitterly cheap — I vividly recall one notorious incarnation in a Florida dinner theater that hosted a not-so-grand total of deux Cagelles in the chorus, and the look of the St. Tropez cabaret has varied from opulence to sleaze. But the show has never has failed to put a smile on my face. And on Thursday at the Marriott, there we all were again: me, the show and the smile.
Although Harvey Fierstein's book is typically witty and smart, the ebullience is not so much in the story as in Herman's music — "La Cage" is based on the 1973 French play that was the inspiration for the movie “The Birdcage,” and follows the manic antics of a pair of homosexual owner-operators of a St. Tropez cabaret as they fake heterosexuality to impress the dour family of their ungrateful son's fiance. This really is a singular collection of love songs, gently sensual teases and, of course, power ballads of self-actualization, including the anthemic "I Am What I Am," the motivation and soundtrack for the flinging open of a whole lot of closet doors over the last three decades.
The show deals with serious issues, including homophobia, the rights to parenting and filial betrayal. But it's fundamentally a bighearted musical that wants to be loved as much as Albin, its vulnerable, self-doubting hero...that role is played by Gene Weygandt...
Weygandt, who has worked in Chicago for years, is a very capable actor (he played the Wizard in "Wicked" for much of its Chicago run). But he's usually cast in enigmatic, elusive roles. He's a flashy performer but his persona can feel distant. There's no hiding with the Albin role, of course. Weygandt reveals more of himself in this production than I've ever seen him do before. That revelation is very much on display in Weygandt's very compelling take on "I Am What I Am," which he begins with a deep sigh, and a telling moment when the actor allows himself to look, well, haggard and tired. And that's exactly where the song should start — one of those moments, familiar to most of us, when we've obscured ourselves to please others, only to figure out that we need not have bothered. Being as they don't care.
"I Am What I Am" (Herman's greatest, for my money) is a song about defiance, sure, but it's also a number in which a weary character steels himself to stare into the mirror one more time, to go one more round with that unforgiving world — it's not so much about radical change as facing a cold Monday morning in the same workplace with the same preconceptions. And Weygandt shows us all that.
...I generally enjoyed David Hess' performance as Georges — he is an excellent singer, a generous actor and he evokes a genuinely loving figure, which is what matters most...
...Les Cagelles are a likable...troupe, and the choreography by Melissa Zaremba...feels somewhat distinctive...But there are advantages in a close relationship with the audience and, once he takes the stage in his show-within-a-show, Weygandt is at the center of that, too, bantering with the suburban crowd and winning over a few skeptics, one at a time. By then, the show has found a reason for being.
The supporting players are all fine — they include Elizabeth Telford as a wide-eyed Anne, Susan Moniz as Jacqueline and Joseph Anthony Byrd as Jacob...But this is Weygandt's night.
Unlike many Albins, he is at his best not in full vocal or costumed flight, but in the moments right before and after, moments that Fierstein well knows. They are the loneliest moments for an actor. For all of us. They're the times we need Herman the most.