FAMILY MATTERS: Albin (Carey Camel, left) as the drag star Zaza, and Georges (Evan Strasnick), manager of La Cage Aux Folles transvestite nightclub, share an intimate moment amidst conflict and chaos over their son’s new fiancée and his conservative in-laws, in the Theatre Intime — Princeton University Players’ production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical comedy, “La Cage Aux Folles,” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 25.
“I beg you, open your eyes … you have arrived at La Cage Aux Folles,” announces the master of ceremonies for the evening. In the opening number, “We Are What We Are,” of the 1983 hit Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the characters of the show present themselves and their world, a popular drag nightclub theater on the French Riviera.
The captivating Theatre Intime-Princeton University Players’ production currently at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, does indeed present a remarkable array of characters from the glittering world of drag performance. “What we are is an illusion,” they sing, “We love how it feels, putting on heels, causing confusion,” and, as the lyrics of the opening number declare, “You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.”
Directed by Princeton University junior Morgan Young with a talented cast of 14 undergraduate performers, this production is fun and appealing, to the eye and the ear. Though it was the first Broadway musical to focus on a gay romantic relationship, it was designed as a family-friendly, song-and-dance entertainment in 1983 when it debuted, ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.
Thirty-two years later, though at times overly sentimental or stereotypical or old-fashioned in characterization, plot and theme, La Cage Aux Folles still resonates powerfully in its moving portrayal of a loving couple — and family — and in the ensemble’s dynamic presentation of these characters and their theatrical world of glitter, performance, and illusion.
Carey Camel as Albin, aka the temperamental star Zaza, and Evan Strasnick as Georges, manager and emcee of the nightclub, are first-rate, committed, and convincing both individually and through the ups and downs of their loving relationship. The seven lively, quirky, flamboyant “Cagelles” are also consistently fun and fascinating to watch in their dramatic performances onstage and backstage at La Cage nightclub.
Based on a popular 1973 French stage play by Jean Poiret and a 1978 movie, which was followed by two sequels in 1980 and 1985, “Les Cages Aux Folles” is set in the St. Tropez nightclub, backstage and onstage, and in the adjoining apartment of Georges, Albin and their 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Paddy Boroughs), who, conceived by Georges in a brief tryst long ago, hasn’t seen his actual mother in more than 20 years.
Early in the evening the point of conflict arises and the stakes rise rapidly as Jean-Michel prepares to marry — a female — and has invited not just his fiancée Anne (Lydia Watt) but also her ultra-conservative — Dad is the leader of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party — parents (Dan Caprera and Nadia Diamond) home to dinner to meet his family. The situation is ripe for humor and dramatic tension (shades of the Sycamore family in Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 You Can’t Take It With You trying to act normally as they entertain their daughter’s stuffy future in-laws), as Georges and Jean-Michel revamp their apartment, Georges straightens up his deportment and they struggle to figure out what to do with the flamboyant Albin, who is first uninvited, then transformed into a macho Uncle Al (“walk like John Wayne”), before he takes matters into his own hands with startling results.
In addition to the French films and the original Broadway musical version, this show has seen numerous other productions in the U.S. and around the world, including two popular Broadway revivals, 2004 and 2010, both of which won the Tony Award for Best Revival. Also, Mike Nichols directed a successful U.S. film adaptation, The Birdcage, in 1996, set in South Beach (Miami) and starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
Mr. Camel’s Albin provides the heart of the show here, as he draws the audience into his life as an aging prima donna, and also a devoted partner to Georges and “mother’ to Jean-Michel. His numbers provide high spots of the evening, including “A Little More Mascara,” as he reflects at the make-up table on the illusions of theater and life before going on stage as Zaza, then in his show-stopping, act one solo finale “I Am What I Am,” as he publicly refuses to compromise his identity to accommodate the expectations of society, and also in a second-act Edith Piaf-style refrain that brings his whole audience — onstage and off — into the beautiful world of his song.
Mr. Strasnick is a worthy counterpart, presiding over “La Cage Aux Folles” nightclub and the larger Hamilton Murray stage. Caught in the middle between the demands of his life with Albin at La Cage and his son’s plans for the future, Georges is a sympathetic character, and Mr. Strasnick presents a credible, interesting figure. Though at times uneven vocally, he is particularly effective in leading the nightclub proceedings and in portraying the depth and emotion of his 20-year relationship with Albin.
Mr. Boroughs as Jean-Michel, contrasting sharply with the world of “La Cage Aux Folles,” presents a clean-cut, likeable young man in love but desperately apprehensive as he prepares to introduce his fiancée and her parents to his unusual family. Ms. Watt is suitably sweet and innocent as the fiancée, and Mr. Caprera and Ms. Diamond successfully portray the one-dimensional, cartoon-like characters of the straitlaced, shocked parents of the bride.
The wonderfully creative — in dress, movement, dance, and characterization — Cagelles deliver memorable, relentlessly interesting and entertaining characters, including the alluring and athletic Jacqueline (Victoria Lee, who deftly doubles as an effusively distinguished restaurateur), the expressive, sarcastic Jacob (Dylan Blau-Edelstein, who also plays with panache the sassy butler/maid for Albin and George and is outrageously funny enough to almost steal the show in a couple of scenes), the amazing operatic-voiced Chantal (Julia Peiperl), Phaedra (Matt Blazejewski) with the acrobatic tongue, the dominatrix Hanna (Kat Giordano) in black leather, red boots, and a whip that she knows how to use, the curiously mustachioed but feminine Mercedes (Alex Vogelsang) and the colorfully cross-dressed Nicole (Brian McSwiggen). Cat Sharp provides a down-to-earth, believable contrast to the gaudy Cagelles as Francis, the nightclub stage manager (though her visible injuries, apparently due to her relationship with Hanna, upsettingly miss the mark for humor).
Choreography by Tess Marchant is simple but successful in rendering this diverse assortment of characters in their wild nightclub setting — with a rich variety of slithering, undulating movements and provocative poses and a kick line or two that might challenge Princeton Triangle Show’s all-male chorus.
The capable eight-piece orchestra positioned behind the set, under the direction of Sam Kaseta, provides strong, appropriate musical accompaniment to the action and singing on stage. David White’s set, depicting backstage and onstage at The Cage nightclub, as well as the apartment of Georges and Albin and several other scenes around town, is less than lavish, but effectively economical, in creating multiple locales without delay between scenes, and striking in its centerpiece curtain made up of dozens of gold mylar strips shimmering in the wind and light (designed by Marissa Applegate) to create the tone and ambience of this play and its world. Rebecca Schnell’s numerous, vivid costumes are on target in further complementing characterizations and tone in the production.
Despite the uniform youthfulness and relative inexperience of the undergraduate cast, some problems and unevenness in the book and score, and the ambitious scope of the entire undertaking, Ms. Young has directed with such fine intelligence and spirit, and her company performs with such admirable focus, energy, and commitment that the show transcends its limitations.
Ms. Young’s wise, perceptive comments in her program note get the last word here and provide compelling motivation to see La Cage Aux Folles in its last weekend at Hamilton Murray Theater: “I have always been drawn to drag as an art form. The eccentricity, excess and inherent performativity of drag is a form particularly suited to musical theatre, the singing, dancing, sparkling queen of the stage world. I find it is also a form particularly suited to self-expression. Drag, to me, is not a disguise, deception or escape, but a heightened representation of self. When something is more extravagant than it is natural or “real” — when someone’s inner monologue is musical, someone’s face is covered in make-up, someone’s hair was bought at Party City — it is not, as a consequence, less “truthful.” Drag performances can be moments of pure self-acceptance, a medium through which everyone can strut their assorted stuff and proclaim, “We are what we are!”