Sunday, March 30, 2003

La Cage Aux Folles (Beck Center)

'La Cage Aux Folles' fun at Beck, but...

“Is the biblical condemnation of homosexuality a rigid commandment broken at dire risk to the sinner?” This was a question recently raised in a southern US city when a publicly funded theatrical presentation was to be staged. The core of the controversy was a production of ``La Cage Aux Folles.''

Fear not, Lakewood’s Beck Center’s production of La Cage is in no danger of being picketed or the funds withdrawn. In fact, it will probably rake in the dollars.

The supposedly controversial musical, ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES’, which won 6 Tony Awards, is based on the movie ‘THE BIRDCAGE.’ It is the story of gay nightclub owner Georges, his star attraction and love interest, Albin, and their "son" Jean-Michel. Complications set in when Jean-Michel falls in love with the daughter of an uptight, political moralist. The hijinks which result from the mismatch of family types, are both amusing and telling.

A play’s director has many decisions to make. In the case of La Cage, the major one is how much of the action will be based on letting the script and music carry the humor and meaning, or how broad and farcical will the cast be encouraged to go in order to entertain. Fred Sternfeld, Beck’s director, decided to go with the latter approach. He pulls no punches. Every shtick, double-take, and farcical device is used to get laughs.

If the opening night audience, which consisted of lots of the cast member’s friends and family, plus a group who obviously had been partying long before curtain time, was any indication, Sternfeld made the right choice.

On the other hand, if the characters had been presented as real people we would have seen a love story, with lovers, gay and straight, who simply love each other. We probably would have asked, "and, what's wrong with that?" And, answered, nothing! In this age of war, bullyism, and terrorism, it was nice to be entertained, but developing the message of tolerance, being proud of who you are, and awareness of who is really important in one’s life, would have added much.

La Cage is a very, very difficult show to stage. Any theatre presenting this script knows that they are undertaking a formidable task. The demands are partly at fault for the less than polished production at Beck. The many light cues, the need for numerous set changes, the sheer number of costumes, and the necessity for a uniformly talented cast created difficulties.

Greg Violand is excellent as Georges, the more “macho” of the couple. He has a strong singing voice, dances well, develops a clear and consistent character, and weaves the role with the proper pathos. Kevin Joseph Kelly has the more difficult role as the character of Albin is very complex. Kelly needed to make the audience love him for who he is and why he is that person, while being amusing, yet sometimes serious. Kelly doesn’t totally pull it off. He wanders in and out of character. He does the comic parts with ease, but has difficulty texturing the serious segments. He does perform the show’s highlight. Experiencing his rendition of the first act curtain closer, “I Am What I Am,” is worth the price of permission. Violand and Kelly’s humorous love song “With You on My Arm,” was sheer delight.

Brian Etchell is acceptable as their son, Jean-Michel. He has a nice, if nasal singing voice. He fails to make the audience really care about him, to realize his conflict between his love of family versus his love of a new relationship. Howard Pippin, though generally funny, often goes over the top as the maid/butler Jacob. This is again a case of begging for laughs, rather than letting them come naturally.

In general, the Les Cagelles, the transvestite dance line, had more enthusiasm than talent. This was especially obvious in the opening number, which lacked cohesion. At most productions of this script, the question is often, “who are the males and who are the females in the chorus line?” There was never any question with this group.

Charles Eversole’s orchestra and musical arrangements were wonderful. Martin Cespedes’s choreography was creative, though the requirements of tapping, doing the cancan, and performing soft-shoe routines often were beyond the abilities of some of the cast. Allison Hernan and Jeff Smart had the unenviable task of producing hundreds of costumes. In the main, they did an acceptable job.

Capsule Judgement: Beck Center deserves credit for undertaking such a daunting show in these times of short finances. Worry not. In spite of some flaws, the word should spread quickly about how much fun the show is, and that should equate to good box office sales.