La Cage aux Folles from Phoenix Theatre Tastes as Good as It Looks

The setup: For many of us late Boomers of the Valley, La Cage aux Folles was the first foreign film we got to go see all by ourselves as young adults, setting a standard for both comedy and the mainstreaming of gay cinema that's been hard to match since.

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Jean Poiret's 1973 play that became the 1978 French-language movie was made into an English-language stage musical by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman long before Robin Williams and Nathan Lane appeared in The Birdcage. Despite premièring during the tumultuous early public days of the AIDS epidemic, La Cage the beloved musical garnered the Tony Award as 1983's Best Musical and has hung in there, proving even more popular (and winning additional Tonys) in revivals and contributing the anthem "I Am What I Am" to assorted pride movements.

The execution: Though the middle-aged love story of Georges and Albin is sweet and moving, a gaggle of towering drag queens with frequent and impressive costume changes is the heart and soul of this show, which spends much more time at the titular nightclub than the non-musical versions do. Phoenix Theatre's current production does not disappoint on that front. Les Cagelles repeatedly descend a big staircase (because it's a Jerry Herman show) and perform a lot of turning and kicking. Every single one of them can do the splits, too, in addition to singing, acting, and looking just beautiful.

Jason Resler's costumes, Terre Steed's makeup, and Gerard Kelly's hairdos serve everyone well. I particularly enjoyed spotting Les Cagelles in their "down time," bicycling, dining, maître d'ing, and slinging fresh fish around town.

In case you've been living under a rock, here's La Cage in a nutshell: Georges and Albin (a female impersonator) emcee/headline at their St. Tropez nightclub together and have also raised Georges' now 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel. Desperate to marry the girl of his dreams, whose father is a high-profile anti-gay politician, Jean-Michel suggests that Albin disappear for just one day to smooth things along. High jinks, hurt feelings, and a happy ending ensue.

This is the first time I've had the opportunity to see this musical, and I was particularly pleased to see that director Michael Barnard has pumped up the equality-affirming quotient of the show way past what the script requires. It's possible to present a La Cage that pulls back on aggressive activism, muffles its appeals to commonality, or both (and I have read that that's been done), but here we have the ferocious, unapologetic flavors of diverse masculinity from the feisty Cagelles, their leader Zaza/Albin, and proud husband and father Georges, along with an ever-present current of tenderness between the stars that meets all the complications with loving confidence.

Rusty Ferracane (Georges), who is amazing in everything, sings what are, frankly, some damn boring (and sometimes baffling) songs like an angel. Robert Kolby Harper's Albin is a nicely complicated creature, burdened with an opening scene of rampant neurosis that gives way to intelligence and strength. Maybe he isn't the prettiest, most graceful, or most melodic of drag queens, but the script, proof against such ammunition as Fierstein and George Hearn in the role, allows charm to trump all other cards, and Harper's charm is up to the task.

Eddie Maldonado, as Jacob the "maid," and Cydney Trent, who has to play a glamorous ciswoman against stiff competition, are other standouts in the cast. And the uncredited orchestra, directed by Alan Ruch, is one of the best I've heard at a traditional musical in some time.

Robert Kovach's set was a bit puzzling to me. The grand carved-wood fittings and heavy fringed curtain of the cabaret, along with its retro-tacky, Egyptian-inspired set piece, look very realistically like what they represent. The apartment and townscape pieces that move in and out downstage seem miniature, cheap, and cheesy, regardless of whether that's intentional. However, the staging of the space works nicely.

A bonus is that our heroine Barbra Seville mingles with the audience beforehand and introduces the show. Seville (portrayed by Richard Stevens) has mad people skills and gets the audience into the appropriate sassy frame of mind.

The verdict: La Cage aux Folles may be more impressive in the hands of a larger company with greater financial resources, but this boutique-y version from Phoenix Theatre is delightful and authentic.

La Cage aux Folles continues through Sunday, April 7, at 100 East McDowell Road. Buy tickets, $25 to $90, here or call 602-254-2151.

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