Saturday, September 16, 2017

A view past identity politics toward an embrace of difference: ATI's 'La Cage aux Folles' conveys the impact with glitz and authenticity

Power couple: ZaZa (Don Farrell) and Georges (Bill Book)
The conservative politician concerned to impose his narrow vision on society is a fixture of America today. In "La Cage aux Folles," he gets his comeuppance in a manner consistent with the score-settling gusto typical of French farce. That harks back to the play upon which the Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical of the same name is based.

But the 1983 musical comedy that opened Actors Theatre of Indiana's season Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theatre  has a more satisfying theme than the just deserts visited upon self-righteous bigotry. And that is the enduring vitality of relationships built on mutual acceptance, but ultimately resting on a foundation of willingness to change as a result, to love beyond what you are used to.

Set on the French Riviera in the not-too-distant past, "La Cage aux Folles" is at the edge of seeming dated, except for the energy it puts into what's required to live authentically outside "the norm" (the scare quotes seem inevitable). The nightclub of the title, its brand built on the zesty naughtiness of performers in drag, rests upon the professional and personal romance of proprietor/emcee Georges and Albin, who as ZaZa is the multifaceted marquee name of La Cage aux Folles.

Georges' early liaison with a woman, an affair he chooses to characterize as accidental, resulted in a son, Jean-Michel. Raised largely by Albin, he's now about to definitively express his heterosexual identity by marrying the nubile Anne, independent-minded daughter of the aforementioned conservative politician and his officially dutiful wife. The conflict that puts the fizz in this highball is a meet-the-parents visit that would make the demonstratively gay Albin an encumbrance, imperiling the match's prospects of success.

The resolution of this dilemma is of course anything but smooth. It demands much from everyone in the know about the host household — expressed with saucy resistance by Jacob, Georges' maid/butler, and with a nagging campaign by the desperate Jean-Michel — but largely falling upon Albin's sleek, vulnerable shoulders.

Don Farrell sounds all conceivable comic notes of the character, as well as the pathos of the self-sacrifice Albin is called upon to make. His performance as ZaZa of "I Am What I Am," an adaptation of the brilliantly staged earlier production number "We Are What We Are," made for a rousing finale to the first act on opening night.

Farrell's ZaZa impersonation, winsome and provocative, was striking enough to render his scenes as Albin — hissy fits and
In the end, the enduring partnership of Albin and Georges is reaffirmed.
pained tenderness alike —  thoroughly credible. The portrayal contrasted appropriately with the blithe accommodation Georges is accustomed to make between his public and private selves in Bill Book's polished performance. The discrepancy between the drag queen and "the plain homosexual" (Georges' self-description) was believably bridged by the genuine rapport that Farrell and Book projected under Larry Raben's astute direction.

With the central relationship so well defined in this production, the show's underlying theme thrives both beneath and beside the manic comedy and vividly costumed and choreographed representation of La Cage's entertainment product. Kudos to Stephen R. Hollenbeck and Carol Worcel, respectively, crowned by the spectacular wigs and makeup of Daniel Klingler, who also plays Jacob.

That theme is the hard-won but essential respect that intimacy requires if it is to last. Not the kind of contractual respect summed up in the Aretha Franklin hit, but rather something Feierstein articulated in the final scene of his near-masterpiece "Torch Song Trilogy." when the hero Arnold's mother defends how she raised her children: "I wanted them to respect me because they wanted to."

Les Cagelles, the resident troupe supporting ZaZa, frolic in "La Cage aux Folles."
In "La Cage aux Folles," the respect finally comes to Albin because the other characters, chiefly the single-minded Jean-Michel, want to extend it to him. If you have to call it the show's message, OK — it's a message. It comes through in Georges' wonderful second-act solo,"Look Over There," later adopted by Jean-Michel after the pivotal production number "The Best of Times."

Sean Haynes is an earnest Jean-Michel who moves from self-absorbed plotting to a genuine change of heart. Throughout, Jerry Herman's songs both sparkle and stick in the mind and heart. Directed by Levi Burke, they are brightly performed in this production, with well-coordinated accompaniments from an offstage band that is sometimes a little too insistent. Wishing to avoid a check list covering the whole cast, I need at least to salute the well-integrated vigor of everyone's acting, singing and dancing.

Long before "La Cage," an influential book by sociologist Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," used theatrical analogies to demonstrate how direct interaction between people makes us all not only actors but also playwrights and, to a considerable degree, the burgeoning production team of a perpetually workshopped project. We act as the persons we believe we are in part to shape others' responses to us and to create compatible environments for the selves we inhabit.

That truth is fully fleshed out in "La Cage aux Folles" with this production's smoothly interacting backstage and onstage milieus and a degree of character development that goes well beyond farce. The audience itself balances on this fulcrum as the truth enunciated by "Torch Song Trilogy"'s Ma hits home: We can't demand respect for who we are; we have to find ways to persuade other people, especially those we care most about, to want to respect us.

It's all show biz, but, given these terms, what's so bad about that?

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]