Music Theater Works delivers a dazzling ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ with plenty of heart
It’s a bright, loud, romantic, outrageous and defiant celebration of living your life as you are, and not what others say you should be.
For those who follow RuPaul Charles’ ubiquitous “Drag Race” competitions on VH1, Ginger Minj needs little introduction. The star of Music Theater Works’ “La Cage Aux Folles” is a three-time alum of RuPaul’s reality show franchise, which tasks drag queens with everything from sewing a couture look from scratch to writing a telenovela script to choreographing and performing an original mini-musical.
Minj excels in all of the above, and she hasn’t really slowed down since she debuted on the high-profile competition series in 2015. The week “La Cage” opened at Skokie’s Northshore Center for the Performing Arts, Disney announced she’d be playing Winifred Sanderson (aka the Bette Midler role) in the highly anticipated “Hocus Pocus 2.” Meanwhile, Minj’s second country music album, “Double Wide Diva,” continues to chart. And it’s worth noting that at the 2016 Trailblazer Awards, Minj brought Harvey Fierstein—bookwriter and original star of Broadway’s “La Cage”—to tears with her performance of the score’s powerhouse anthem “I Am What I Am.”
When: Through April 3
Where: Music Theater Works at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $19.50 - $106, with meet-and-greet options available
Run-time: Two hours, 45 minutes including one intermission
In director Kyle A. Dougan’s tawdry, glamorous staging for Music Theater Works, Minj gets the showcase she deserves. “La Cage” sounds great and looks fabulous, from lilting love duets to frenzied, high-kicking, Folies Bergere-inspired drag chorus lines.
The plot—as in the original 1973 play by Jean Poiret, the 1978 French film and the 1996 reboot—centers on Zaza/Albin (Minj). Zaza is Albin’s drag persona, toast of St. Tropez and headliner at the titular nightclub. Albin is Zaza’s Truman Capote-meets-Elton-John non-drag self, a devoted husband to Georges (Jason Richards), who owns La Cage. Their son is Jean-Michel (Christopher Ratliff), the result of a drunken one-night stand between Georges and a chorus girl who isn’t in their lives.
Comic complications abound when Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Heather Banks), a young woman whose father is a powerful politician to the right of Anita Bryant and twice as homophobic. Jean-Michel insists on hosting a heteronormative dinner for his fianceé and her family, demanding that Georges butch it up and Albin keep out of sight. Albin refuses to play along, setting up an evening that morphs from disaster to celebration. Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics capture both extremes with a fast-paced mix of humor and pathos.
Music director Kyra Leigh and conductor Linda Madonia create a soundscape that captures all the emotions of the music. Georges’ and Albin’s whimsical, endearing “Song on the Sand” gently, emphatically shows their enduring devotion to one another. The manic, joyful title tune—performed by the showstopping “Cagelles” who open for Zaza—is a whirl of sequined death drops and acrobatics. Christopher Carter’s choreography is all attitude and spectacle, the two traits that define life in La Cage.
Minj has the showy role, but as her “plain homosexual” husband Georges, Richards creates a grounded, calming presence as a man who has devoted his life to his partner and made their nightclub a haven for all those who eschew the straight and narrow and celebrate living life “on an angle.”
Drag has long been at the intersection of garishness and glamor, camp and couture, and anyone building looks for “La Cage” has their work cut out for them. Costumer Justin LeBlanc (“Project Runway”) does fine work, putting the Cagelles in glittery bustiers and neon ruffles, all highlighting the explosive flouncery that defines theirfloor show. Zaza’s finale dress is a show-stopping tulle confection worthy of a runway. Scott Davis’ set design includes at least 14 chandeliers and half a dozen disco balls swinging overhead, all creating a credibly glittery club.
The ensemble shines throughout, but keep an eye out for Honey West as Angelique, a restaurant owner with a gift for making fools of narrow-minded hypocrites.
There’s nothing foolish about Music Theater Works “La Cage.” It’s bright, loud, romantic, outrageous and a defiant celebration of living your life as you are, and not what others say you should be.