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Ivoryton Playhouse CT goes sassy and brassy with ‘La Cage Aux Folles’

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'La Cage Aux Folles' a musical at Ivoryton Playhouse in CT

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Kinky boots and fishnet stockings on big beautiful boys have proved to be a crowd-pleaser for the Ivoryton Playhouse’s big summer production, “La Cage Aux Folles.” Playing through August 31st, the book by Harvey Fierstein adapted from a French play by Jean Poiret, is a fun romp, but the real reason to enjoy this show is Jerry Herman’s incredibly melodic music and funny/poignant lyrics.

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The original 1983 Broadway production won six Tony Awards including best musical, score and book and continues to be a success around the world. The original French-Italian 1978 film comedy from which the musical was adapted is far superior to the Hollywood-mangled version re-named ‘The Birdcage.’

The story centers on nightclub owner Georges and his diva-drag-queen partner Albin. James Van Treuren is immediately likeable and cuts a dashing figure as Georges - who must switch between his ‘master of ceremonies’ persona at the La Cage Aux Folles nightclub in St.Tropez, and then revert to the partner who uses kid-glove treatment on his wildly hysterical lover, drag diva ZaZa/Albin. Van Treuren lovingly sings “Song On The Sand” and “Look Over There” with the poignancy that Jerry Herman intended. He looks exactly as we expect a sophisticated impresario to look.

Georges’ son announces his impending marriage to the daughter of a bigoted right-wing politician, and Albin, who has been ‘mother’ to the boy for 20 years, tries to help in his/her own inimitable style to smooth the way for the upcoming visit of the hostile in-laws-to-be.

David Edwards as Albin is most brilliant during his attempt to transform from drag diva into a crotch-scratching male stereotype in “Masculinity” and again when he, stage center, sings the defiant and powerful anthem “I Am What I Am.” A guaranteed show-stopper, every time. He archly banters with the audience as ZaZa, and is perfectly cast as an ‘old-fashioned’ venom-tongued queen.

Playing Georges’ natural son, Jean-Michel, handsome Zach Trimmer is delightful. His dilemma in trying to hide fact that his ‘parents’ are homosexuals gives actor Trimmer the opportunity to show us how emotionally torn Jean-Michel is between his adoration of his lady-love Anne (Allyson Webb) who has uptight homophobic parents, and his love of the two men who raised him. The sprightly song-and-dance ditty “With Anne On My Arm” and the haunting reprise of “Look Over There” both give us the chance to hear Trimmer’s beautiful voice in all its clarity and power.

Musical Director Michael Morris and his 8-piece orchestra do great justice to Jerry Herman’s glorious score. Their evocative imitations of Riviera/Parisian sounds and themes make us believe that we are watching a ‘French’ musical. In the numbers featuring the rousing drag chorus, Les Cagelles, “We Are What We Are” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” the boys are right-on vocally, and the music and chorus each complement the other flawlessly.

The build up to the major ensemble song in the production number “The Best Of Times” is perfection, and the audience gets the opportunity to revisit this delicious song with a moment or two of rhythmic hand-clapping in the curtain-call reprise.

That’s the good stuff.

Director Lawrence Thelen looses control of his actors by allowing them to get away with screechy histrionics during the interplay with the ‘stage manager’ and Les Cagelles in the ‘backstage’ scenes. Are those squeals and shouts supposed to be stand-ins for lines? We can’t understand what all the overly high drama and excessive scene-chewing is about with these characters because the words aren't intelligible.

Phil Young as butler/maid Jacob has some of the funniest lines in the show, but has been allowed to shriek them rather than speak them clearly while leaping about the stage. That’s where the direction fails….the actions of the Cagelles, the maid, and stage manager are so ‘over-the-top’ all the time that it is more irritating than comedic.

MarTina Vidmar as restaurateur Jacqeline looks great in the part with her bright red hair, but is the only person onstage (in a story that takes place in France) who has a French accent! That accent is so thick that the only time we understand her is when she beautifully projects the heart of the lyric along with her distinctive phrasing in “The Best Of Times” – when her accent completely disappears.

Choreography by Todd Underwood is exaggerated high-kicking drag, and the boys certainly have the gorgeous lithe bodies and legs for that. The one number that should be cut completely is a rear-of-the-stage ‘dance’ done on a carousel bathed in pink light throughout. It seems that the only reason for the number is to have bragging rights to the fact that Ivoryton has a ‘revolving stage’ on which this abominable dance is performed. There is also a klutzy can-can number, with Les Cagelles in ugly black costumes, which goes on interminably. Having seen the real can-can girls in bright dazzling dresses and petticoats at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, we can assume that the costume designer, Njaye Olds, has not.

There is lack of French chic to the costuming and wigs in this show. If anyone had done research to study the production numbers of the greatest nightclub in the world – The Lido de Paris – more thought might have been given to the elegance that this "La Cage Aux Folles" should have portrayed. ZaZa’s gowns (other than one that looked like she ‘saw it in the window and just had to have it’) were the exception. Expensive and beautiful, they befitted the star. Les Cagelles outfits, however, looked badly draped, cut, sewn and fitted. No self-respecting French drag queen would ever go on stage looking so Goodwill-ish.

Technically, the spotlight always fell short when ZaZa was onstage. Her face was blue, or red, or in shadow. The spot hit her just below her chin, and there were other missed lighting cues. The sound was great for Georges, Albin and Jean-Michel. The microphones for almost everyone else were either not working, or were of poor quality.

All that grumbling out of the way, this is still an old-fashioned musical love story that is enjoyable particularly because of the music. With better fabric, more decorative costumes, and a splash of elegance and style this could have been a great musical production rather than just a good one. Yet, the audience had a good time, the seats were all filled, the music was rapturous, and our expectations might have been just a bit too high, having seen the Broadway production on which millions were lavished on the details.

But in the end, it’s all about rooting for the lovable Georges and Albin, great music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, a witty book by Harvey Fierstein and the talented house musicians – all of those sparkling gems are worth the price of a ticket.

La Cage runs through August 31st. Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm. There are 2 extra matinees for this show on Saturday August 16th and 23rd at 2pm. Tickets are $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or by visiting www.ivorytonplayhouse.org The Playhouse is located at 103 Main Street in the pretty village of Ivoryton.

Reviewed by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’

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