Saturday, April 29, 2023

"La Cage Aux Folles" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

On the surface, the 1983 Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles may be about drag performers, but at its heart it's a simple and beautiful story about a family that may look different than the stereotypical family we think of, but is full of love, compassion, and support. What better time to produce this musical than now, with all this irrational fear of drag queens perpetuated by politicians to garner votes and increase their power. Lakeshore Players Theatre opened their production last night, and this beautiful message comes through loud and clear. It's not perfect; it feels a bit long at over 2.5 hours, with some challenging scene transitions (and costume changes), and some line hesitancy on opening night, all of which will likely tighten up over the run of the show. But what it lacks in professional polish it makes up for in heart. It's a joyful show, with a great score, fun dancing, and plenty of humor. See it at the Hanifl Performing Arts Center in downtown White Bear Lake now through May 21.

If you've seen the 1996 movie The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams you're familiar with the story, which began as a 1973 French play called La Cage aux Folles, and then became a 1983 Broadway musical written by Harvey Fierstein (book) and Jerry Herman (music and lyrics). La Cage tells the story of gay couple Georges and Albin. Georges runs the nightclub where Albin is the star, performing as his alter ego ZaZa. Georges' son Jean-Michel, whom Albin has helped raise, comes home to announce that he's engaged to Anne, the daughter of a conservative politician who wants to shut down all drag entertainment (sound familiar?). The in-laws are coming to town, and Jean-Michel asks Albin to leave for the evening, instead inviting his birth mother to pretend that they're a "normal" family. Albin is understandably hurt that the man he considers his son is ashamed to introduce him to his fiance. He can't stay away, and poses first as "Uncle Al," and then, in drag, as Jean-Michel's mother. Of course the deception doesn't last, but they're able to convince Anne's father to give his consent with some good old-fashioned blackmail. Jean-Michel realizes what a mistake he made and tells Albin he thinks of him as his mother. And they live happily ever after, for "the best of times is now."*

ZaZa (Joe Rux) and the Cagelles (photo by Megan K. Pence)
Director Joe LaForte leads the talented cast and brings out all of the heart and humor of the piece. The star of this show is Joe Rux, who gives a wonderful heart-felt performance as Albin. He's equal parts diva showgirl and devoted mother/wife, and your heart breaks for Albin when he's rejected and is totally with him when he defiantly sings the anthem "I Am Who I Am." He shares a sweet chemistry with Doug Anderson as Georges, and their duets are lovely. Other highlights in the cast include Samuel Verdick and Kate Piering as the young lovers and Nick Finken, stealing scenes as the family butler maid. The Cagelles are also fabulous, even if most of them are women instead of men in drag (but I won't hold that against them), ably performing Jenessa Iverson's fun cabaret choreography.

Joe Rux as Albin as ZaZa (photo by Megan K. Pence)
Music Director Wesley Frye leads the six-piece pit orchestra on this Tony-winning score. Brady Whitcomb's impressive set design transitions from the cabaret stage, to the lush apartment above it, to a lovely French park. Jac Fatale's colorful costumes range from fabulously gaudy performance pieces to French sophistication. 

A note in the program lists staggering statistics about the number of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced just this year alone. Forty years after La Cage Aux Folles premiered on Broadway, some people apparently still need to be reminded that families, relationships, and people come in all different assortments. And no kind of family, or person, is better than any other, as long as there's love and respect. Celebrate this beautiful and inclusive sentiment with Georges, Albin, and Jean-Michel at Lakeshore Players Theatre.

The best of times is now.
What's left of summer but a faded rose?
The best of times is now.
As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love as hard as you know how,
And make this moment last,
Because the best of times is now.