Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A glittering La Cage

It's a little weird shifting gears from the homophobic oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino to the glitzy, too-gay world of Jerry Herman, but I owe Reagle Players a quick look back at their La Cage aux Folles, which closed last weekend.

Reagle has had something of a rollercoaster ride this summer, with the local press paying more attention than usual now that the North Shore Music Theatre, the only other bastion of the American musical in the area, has gone belly-up. The season was given over to a celebration of Herman's three biggest hits - Hello, Dolly!, Mame, and La Cage, all of them solid showcases for Reagle's nostalgic formula of professional leads, community support, and the budget to "recreate" the scale and flash of the original productions. Alas, the press spotlight shown most intensely on Reagle's Mame, a generally solid production that was hobbled by its star.

With La Cage, the company bounced back - with, sadly enough, not many in the press paying much attention. Even more ironically, the show's success (like Mame's failure) was largely due to the talents of its star, David Engel (at left), who was just about everything you'd want in both a leading man and lady. Engel is a serious triple threat - he can act, sing, and dance; only make that a sextuple threat, because he can do all of those in heels and a boa, too. He's also a looker, and a seriously glamorous presence in pants - which actually probably isn't quite right for Zaza, who is often portrayed as a bit of a frump offstage (while hubby Georges is the suave glamourpuss). But that hardly mattered when Engel tore into a take-no-prisoners version of "I Am What I Am," which probably counted as the most powerful vocal performance of the year so far.

Engel towered over the production, although he received solid backup from Broadway vet Jamie Ross, who immediately established an easy rapport with the audience as Georges (Ross had played the role against George Hearn in the original Broadway run). Still, in terms of sheer performance energy, Ross couldn't quite keep up, and though the couple easily pulled off the surface emotion of Herman's beautifully schmaltzy love scenes, their underlying emotional connection remained, well, elusive.

The audience didn't seem to mind, though - indeed, they ate the show up, as straight crowds of a certain age always do. This is because Herman (and book writer Harvey Fierstein) have smoothed away any stray strands of controversy from the original farce (the hints of drug use, the parody of domestic violence) and poured on the long-term-couple-nostalgia, complete with French love songs on accordions and sugary old stars glittering in the twilit sky. The cynic in me has to mention, of course, that even though Georges and Albin are both male, the gender roles in their relationship are completely "traditional"; thus if one of them is a drag queen, why should a good Republican mind? After all, don't a lot of Republican wives begin to look like drag queens anyway? (Oh stop it, you know I'm right.) Two gay tops thrashing out a relationship would be quite a different musical, I'm afraid, but in the meantime you could almost hear all the straight couples in the crowd singing along with "Song on the Sand." No wonder this show was a hit.

Of course that hit status was also largely due to the "Cagelles," the famous high-kicking chorus in which the girls might be girls, or might not! In the original Broadway production, the gender line was, indeed, tantalizingly indeterminate. This was perhaps less true at Reagle, but again, it hardly mattered - those boys (and girls) could kick and do splits better than the best Rockette (and here they re-appeared at the curtain call in their gender-specific street clothes, which was a nice, we're-all-just-folks touch). Indeed, the first act's long show-within-a-show was probably the highlight of the Reagle production; the costumes were smashing, the glittering backdrop just right, the Cagelles tossed off back-flips, and Engel held court in high, campy style - the whole thing made me nostalgic for the lost world of classy after-midnight entertainment that existed before drag began to go the way of pro wrestling. Sigh. Forget about romance - even being gay isn't what it used to be!

But back to La Cage. Director David Scala did a solid job with the show, and was credited with "recreating" the "entire original production" in the program - but I began to wonder at the wisdom of this idea. Reagle simply doesn't have the resources, in the Waltham High auditorium, to "recreate" the sets of a Broadway house (the costumes are a different story), and the resulting realizations, though they went through some miraculous transformations given their confines, looked a little threadbare; the show was most dazzling when it relied on simple, but effectively glamorous, backdrops and drapes. Perhaps a general trend toward simple-but-elegant could benefit Reagle in the set department. With so much being done well in these shows, it would be nice to see their physical settings truly sparkle as well.

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