La Cage Aux Folles was originally staged in 1983, and has since been revived numerous times, most notably back in 2008 with a production by the Menier Chocolate Factory that went on to win both Olivier and Tony Awards. And while this new touring production (the first ever to do the rounds in the UK) is perhaps not looking to dominate the awards season, it has a lot to live up to.
Based on the play of the same name by Jean Poiret, La Cage Aux Folles focuses on a gay couple who live in Saint-Tropez. Between the two of them, they run the infamous drag club ‘La Cage’; Georges, the owner and master of ceremonies; Albin, the star of the club and mastermind behind drag queen alter-ego Zaza. When Georges’s son Jean-Michel wants to bring home his future wife, and her incredibly conservative parents, the couple must deal with having to hide their sexuality, their flamboyance and, in the case of Albin, everything about himself.
With a book by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein, the narrative toes the fine line between wit and farce incredibly well. In an instant it flips from an on-stage sitcom to cabaret club, complete with audience interaction. And for the most part, director Martin Connor balances that well – even if he doesn’t quite manage to achieve the club-like feel needed for the audience to naturally switch from observers to participants.
However it’s not the humour where this production is strongest. Fierstein has a great ability at injecting emotion into his work, and La Cage is a prime example, balancing a humorous front with serious undertones. This is first and foremost a musical about family relationships, about being true to oneself and, above all, being true to others.
If there’s a song that typifies those themes, it’s always going to be ‘I am what I am’ – a real belter that has become iconic in musical theatre canon. Written by Jerry Herman, it summarises the tone of the show in a way that few other musical songs manage to do; not just a song for that moment or for progressing the story. Instead, it manages to encapsulate what both Zaza and the whole musical represent. Personally, ‘I am what I am’ aside, I found that the music throughout the rest of the piece was a little hit and miss, with only the ensemble numbers really standing out or having any weight behind them, but that’s not to say they weren’t all pleasant enough.
The whole thing is held together by a cast who are obviously loving being part of this iconic show. But, as is often the case with La Cage Aux Folles, this is Albin/Zaza’s production, and John Partridge laps it up. Equal parts drag queen star and vulnerable family man, there’s a touching innocence to a lot of his performance. Partridge does a brilliant job of balancing Albin’s flamboyant facade with a believable emotional core. He also has a cracking set of pipes and belts out Zaza’s big numbers, doing real justice to Herman’s music.
Opposite Partridge, Adrian Zmed as Georges feels slightly less believable. While he is vocally well suited to the role, he doesn’t quite manage to add the gravitas needed to make the choice between Albin and Jean-Michel’s wishes a realistic one. Still, he deals with the more humorous side of the role well, and is perhaps most comfortable in his scenes with flamboyant maid Jacob, here played by Samson Ajewole.
The whole thing is helped along nicely by some truly lovely (if slightly shaky) visuals by designer Gary McCann, who’s done a brilliant job at putting to bed the old perception that touring sets have to be overly simple. A grand golden proscenium, plenty of red curtains, sequins and feathers mean that while the audience isn’t quite transported to Saint-Tropez, it’s very clear that the ticket money has been well spent.
This is a very worthy revival of an iconic musical. In the starring role, John Partridge is unmissable, and there are some lovely designs that make the whole production feel top notch.
La Cage Aux Folles is currently on tour. Head on over to the Bill Kenwright site to check out dates and locations.