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Marriott's dazzling 'La Cage' is bright and bold

There's a make-or break moment that comes roughly midway through "La Cage Aux Folles," a number that –— done wrong — renders everything before it meaningless and everything after it anticlimactic. It starts unassumingly enough, with a lone figure on stage, not singing but barely speaking four small words, "I am what I am."

From there, "I Am What I Am" gradually but ruthlessly soars into a 12-alarm fire of a self-affirming anthem, ending not just with a mighty roar but with a wig hurled across the stage in a gesture of rage and self-empowerment. Albin, the "transvestite" pair in the gay couple that also includes "plain homosexual" Georges (David Hess) ends the number with an uncompromising fabulosity.

At the Marriott Theatre staging of "La Cage," directed by Joe Leonardo and running through March 22, the all-important number falls to Park Ridge's Gene Weygandt, a triple threat singer/dancer/actor arguably known more for a sly, slightly understated sense of wicked menace than for histrionics. But here, as Albin's fierce showgirl alter-ego Zaza he's worth every rhinestone in his skin-tight gown. He makes the song an unbridled ode to joy that has the power to instill pride in every questioning youth (or adult) lucky enough to be sitting in the audience. It's glorious.

"I Am What I Am" may be the signature showstopper, but the 11-time Tony-winning "La Cage" has plenty more going for it. Based on the 1973 French play, the musical's score comes courtesy of Jerry Herman ("Mame," "Hello, Dolly!") and a clever book by the unstoppable Harvey Fierstein ("Kinky Boots"). When it premiered over 20 years ago, the show was revolutionary. Wearing one's pride out, loud and uncompromising was an act of supreme bravery. It still is, even though – thankfully – gay marriage and civil rights have made significant advancements.

The basic story, though, is classic boy (Alvin and Georges' son Jean-Michel, played by Brian Bohr) meets ingénue Anne (Elizabeth Telford). The complication is that Anne's uber-conservative parents M. (Fred Zimmerman) and Mme. Dindon (Anne Gunn) are on a quest to raze every last den of inequity (read: nightclub) on St. Tropez, where La Cage is the nightclub crown jewel and Zaza its biggest bauble. Once the Dindons discover that Albin and George are not only gay but have a son and most unforgivably, show no signs of repentance, all heck breaks loose.

Not to worry, this is musical comedy not tragedy and all ends well. But not before some highly entertaining shenanigans. Among those are the endless delight of the Cagelles. Kudos to choreographer Melissa Zaremba for continually racheting up the jaw-dropping moves the Cagelles perform. Every last one of the Cagelles (J Tyler Whitmer, Raymond Interior, Adam Estes, Jordan Fife Hunt, Clayton Cross, Zachary L. Gray and Jhardon DiShon Milton) is a showgirl extraordinaire and deserve combat pay for some of the moves they're called on to undertake.

Fierstein's book retains its charm and its naughty humor, delivered to perfection by Hess and Weygandt. And there is great fun to be had in watching Zimmerman's Dindon get his comeuppance in the end.

Yes, the world has evolved since "La Cage" first came into the world. The show itself, at least at the Marriott, remains timeless.