Gays, we need to talk. I hate to say it, but maybe we need to retire our beloved La Cage aux Folles. Wait, I know what you’re going to say… “It’s a classic!” “It inspired The Birdcage!” “We don’t want to get angry phone calls from Harvey!” I hear you, I really do, but the show doesn’t work anymore. The new production of La Cage.., recently transferred to Sydney’s sumptuous State Theatre, struggles to take flight because the show itself is getting dated to the point of being unlikable.
At its heart, this is a story we really need to see right now. A big musical that questions gender stereotypes (while also, slightly regressively emboldening them) and celebrates trans identities (even if it does use outdated language). A stage show filled with empowering anthems of self-love and determination triumphing over right-wing oppression. But La Cage… isn’t the pioneering work it once was. It feels more like a museum piece now, a hit of nostalgia demanding we gloss over its anachronisms and weaknesses.
This new production in Sydney has stripped things back a little too much to work in the large space of the State Theatre. The set, the vocals and the band all feel too small for the grand auditorium. When everything is ‘on’, the night comes alive. The all-drag Cagelles whip up a storm and there is some excellent choreography from Veronica Beattie George. They are suitably glamorous and amusing. Lucia Mastrantone is camping it up to high heaven as restaurateur Jacqueline, and there are some excellent vocals from the core trio of Paul Capsis (Albin/Zaza), Michael Cormack (Georges), and Noah Mullins (as Jean-Michel). But the show is plagued with empty space and static moments.
Capsis is well suited to the role of Albin. A seasoned cabaret legend, he slips naturally into drag and is at his best when playing with the big emotions. A canny comedian, he can milk a moment and knock out a number with ease. “The Best of Times” soars as he leads the ensemble, but when we hit the show’s signature tune, “I Am What I Am”, it struggles to let the camp aesthetic drop and the raw emotion rise.
Director Riley Spadaro (who brought us the riotous comedy of The Italians) gives us a production that would be more suited to an intimate space than a grand theatre. Some of the younger performers gave performances that were too subtle for such a big room, while confusingly, there are a multitude of accents in use including French, Australian, and American.
When you think of La Cage aux Folles, you think of Albin and the Cagelles. Albin is a career-making role. With so much drama, comedy, and all the big numbers, it’s the Mama Rose of drag. But the show has a problem with the character of Jean-Michel, the twenty-four year old son of Georges, raised by Albin. In order to impress the ultra-conservative parents of his fiancé, Jean-Michel forces Georges and Albin back into the closet. Audiences may have been able to empathize with his dilemma in the 70s and 80s (it was even a bit of a stretch in the 90s when The Birdcage was released), but in the 21st century I find it hard to root for the romance of a callow young fool like Jean-Michel when he’s being so cruel to his own parents. Add to that, the shallow female roles and I think it’s time La Cage... was quietly shelved and its numbers saved for evenings of cabaret.
I believe this is the first time La Cage aux Folles has been seen in Sydney since the 1980s and it’s a pity they tried to go big, when it would have benefited from going small (à la the 2008 Menier Chocolate Factory production in London that worked its way to Broadway in 2010). When this production works, it has a real spark, but it’s a bit too uneven to be a crowd pleaser. If you’re a lover of musical theatre however grab yourself a seat close up to let it really envelop you.
By Chad Armstrong
La Cage aux Folles plays at the State Theatre, Sydney from Apr 19-23, 2023. Click here for more information and tickets.
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