La Cage aux Folles Review – Union Tribune

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Lively ‘La Cage’ wears well with age – High-stepping production honors show’s past while embracing the present

Since its Broadway premiere in 1983, “La Cage Aux Folles” has been a showcase for the musical and theatrical talents of its Albin, the temperamental but big-hearted drag queen star at the titular French nightclub.

By default, Georges — Albin’s longtime partner and producer — tends to play “straight man,” serving as club emcee and Albin’s stabilizing glue. But in San Diego Musical Theatre’s glitzy, entertaining production that opened Saturday at Spreckels Theater, it’s Georges who steals the spotlight. Robert J. Townsend’s commanding performance is authentic, moving and right in his vocal sweet spot.

With the endearingly high maintenance David Engel as Albin, they’re an eccentric but clearly adoring couple. Director Larry Raben honors the story’s early 1970s roots but softens the camp and caricature to create a believable mature gay couple who make sense in today’s more accepting times.

Americans may know “La Cage aux Folles” better for its movie adaptation, “The Birdcage,” starring Nathan Lane and the late Robin Williams. Adapted for the stage by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman from a 1973 French play, it’s the story of how the lives of Georges and Albin are turned upside down when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, announces he’s engaged to the daughter of a religious conservative politician. Jean-Michel tries to block Albin from meeting his future in-laws, but Albin has other plans.

The musical mixes dance numbers by Albin’s onstage alter-ego, Zaza, and the cat-fighting, bawdy Cagelles, with scenes in Georges’ and Albin’s above-the-club apartment. The score is best known for Albin’s self-affirming first-act closer “I Am What I Am,” which Engel performs with passion and gusto, and the second-act ensemble “The Best of Times.” And thanks to Townsend’s strong voice and subtle acting, his tender love ballad “Song on the Sand” is particularly memorable.

The historic Spreckels Theatre is the perfect setting for the show-within-a-show, where Engel struts a catwalk and interacts with the audience. He’s joined onstage by the Cagelles, six drag queens who impressively sing, tumble, roller-skate and dance a mix of tap, ballet, jazz and much more choreographed with pizazz by Karl Warden. The Cagelles are Scott Frausto, Alex Sanchez, Luke H. Jacobs, Donnie Gersonde, Ala Tiatia and Taylor Shubert.

Frequent SDMT director James Vasquez makes a welcome return to the stage as Jacob, the hyper-dramatic maid. His rubber face, comic timing and hilarious costuming make him a standout. Bren Thor Johnson is a fresh-faced and youthful Jean-Michel and Debra Wanger is fun and feisty as Jean-Michel’s prospective mother-in-law.

Musical director Don Le Master leads a spirited onstage band through the score, which occasionally drowned out the singers due to some opening night microphone volume troubles.

Bret Young and David Medina’s apartment scenic design is a tongue-in-cheek homage to 1970s excess, complete with oversized male nude statues, gaudy gold couch and homoerotic wall art, including a framed photo of then-Olympic decathlete Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner. “La Cage” could be a dated period piece, but thanks to thoughtful touches and heartfelt performances, it’s a rousing and modern celebration of acceptance.

pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com

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