Thursday, 9 March 2017

"La Cage Aux Folles", Edinburgh Playhouse, 7/3/17

Despite premiering in London in the 1980s, this is the first ever UK tour of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's "La Cage Aux Folles". Following its West End transfer, the Menier Chocolate Factory production of a few years back was rumoured to tour but this, sadly, never happened. Now Bill Kenwright has taken the lead and produced a first class production, taking a risk on a title that has little track record outside of London, but one that more than delivers. What prompted Kenwright's decision I do not know but the production is more than welcome and especially timely given the politically volatile times we live in.

The musical tells the story of Georges, owner of St. Tropez cabaret club La Cage aux Folles, whose son, Jean-Michel, returns home to announce his impending marriage to Anne, daughter of right-wing politician Edouard Dindon, who seeks to close the nightclubs and restore 'tradition' values. Georges raised Jean-Michel with his partner Albin, whose alter-ego is Zaza, star of La Cage aux Folles. In an effort to win favour from his potential parents-in-law Jean-Michel requests that Albin make himself scarce when the Dindons arrive to meet his family. The tension and emotional turmoil that follows forms the crux at the heart of a story which illustrates how a solid family is formed by those sharing love and respect for each other, as demonstrated in Herman's beautiful song "Look Over There", and that as different as people may at first appear to be, in reality they share many similarities. 

There is some light trimming of Herman's score, which remains one of his finest, and some minor tinkering with Fierstein's book but these are not detrimental but, rather, serve to update and focus some details and both Herman's songs (including the anthemic "I Am What I Am", "The Best Of Times" and the lush "Song On The Sand") and Fierstein's book remain as entertaining, witty and as potent as ever. 
Director Martin Connor makes some brave choices, including ad-libbing and asides, and maintains a fluidity throughout whilst the choreography by Bill Deamer is attuned to the scenes in which they take place, be they 'onstage' or off, and further the quality of the production. The set and costume design of Gary McCann is exquisite and is elegantly complimented by the lighting. Where the previous Menier Chocolate Factory production took the lyrics of the title song as indication of the second- or even third-rate nature of the club, here the club's design is untarnished glamour and the production numbers, whilst retaining an element of the less-than-perfect, are first rate. Here the title number is performed with a wink as if something of an ironic joke about the nature of the club.
The orchestrations are surprisingly effective and the musical direction of Mark Crossland is on top form. Which is fortunate, given that Zaza keeps him on his toes.
This production appears to fuse time periods with 70s design elements working alongside modern ones, and this creates an impression of the timelessness of the piece, of how relevant its message is now as when the original Jean Poiret play was written. The variety of accents heard across the characters also illuminates the idea of inclusion, that the human story, regardless of where we originate, involves us all.

Another strong aspect of the production is the casting, led exceptionally by John Partridge as Albin/Zaza whose rich, silky vocals, at times sexually husky, deliver Herman's melodies and lyrics with ease, with every syllable imbued with purpose. His physicality is dynamic yet controlled and he moves effortlessly in heels (not for the first time as Partridge previously appeared as Marilyn in Taboo). As the emotional dynamo of the production he is adept equally in the intimate scenes as he is in his flamboyant scenes as Zaza where he ad-libs profusely, breaking the fourth wall occasionally - something that could threaten to derail the momentum of a production but which, here, becomes part of Zaza's magic. This is a role that Partridge was born to play and he makes the most of every moment especially his emotionally heartbreaking, yet rousing, performance of "I Am What I Am".
Adrian Zmed is a suave and attractive Georges, ever the calm at the centre of the storm that revolves about him. His relationship with Albin is tender, loving, never feels artificial and together they create an impression of emotional history and connection that maintains their relationship, replete with a palpable chemistry. Diametrically opposite to the wild nature of Albin, Georges is a necessarily solid, dependable character who might come across as dull, but that is not the case in Zmed's capable hands (and vocals) and he is as engaging and as charming as is possible and establishes himself as one of the many joys of the production.
The Cagelles of the company are unique, vivacious figures who lend sterling support, whether in the club numbers or not, and each promotes a strong presence when they appear and they dance and sing with sublime enthusiasm. The fact they can create individual characters within the confines of ensemble performance is a credit to each of them.
Marti Webb's Jacqueline may be relatively small role but it is an important one and Webb lends her powerful and impressive voice to the production and she is a welcome, calming, presence. Dougie Carter makes a visually and vocally attractive Jean-Michel and the Jacob of Samson Ajewole is a physical, comedic treat. Further support is excellently provided by Alexandra Robinson's Anne Dindon, Su Douglas' Marie Dindon and, as right-wing politician Dindon, Paul F Monaghan who, together, form the counterparts to the less traditional family of Georges, Albin and Jean-Michel.

A lively, thrilling, emotional, uplifting, joyously vibrant musical that proclaims 'we are what we are' and that that is more than okay, La Cage Aux Folles still retains an impact that is as credible, and as vital, as when Jean Poiret wrote his original play back in 1973. This vivacious production serves the material exceptionally well and is an example of the best of theatre at a time when entertaining, powerful stories need to be told and need to be seen and heard.

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