La Cage aux Folles was as timely when it opened as shows like Hamilton are today. Despite the show’s old-fashioned sensibility and slightly drippy sentimentality, it celebrated being gay at a time when gay men were dying by the thousands due the AIDS epidemic, all while their own government refused to even acknowledge them. This was a panic-stricken time in New York’s history, and La Cage was so vital because it clung to a sense of desperate optimism at a time when many felt that it would be impossible to be optimistic ever again. Modernity has brought with it an acceptance of the gay-rights movement, so the show has lost its edge, but that does not mean that its boundless joyfulness can not still resonate with audiences. Thankfully, that spirit is still very much alive in Bay Area Musicals’s production of La Cage Aux Folles, which is highly entertaining, if rather pointedly imperfect.
The show takes place in the 1970’s in Saint-Tropez, a town along the French Riviera. Georges is the owner of La Cage Aux Folles, a rather seedy nightclub famous for its cross-dressing dancers, of which Albin is the star. Georges and Albin are in a longtime relationship, but are told to operate under the guise of being straight when Georges’s son Jean-Michel wants to bring his fiancé home for dinner, along with her parents, who run an anti-gay organization. If this sounds like the setup for a perfect farce, be prepared to be let down, as the show takes far too long to get going, then never gains any momentum before abruptly ending. Where the show succeeds is in its portrayal of Georges and Albin’s relationship, which is consistently funny and emotionally sophisticated. It is in this relationship where the show becomes successful, and thankfully, the two actors in this production are more than up for the task of providing the evening’s entire emotional heavy-lifting. Clay David as Georges is sophisticated and charming, and has an impressive singing voice to match. His portrayal of Georges is more pointedly gay than is typical, and it is a highly effective choice that allows for the central romantic relationship to feel less stereotypical than in productions where Georges is seen as masculine and Albin as feminine. Albin, however, is an unapologetically brash character, a kind of cross-dressing Mama Rose, and it is my great pleasure to say that Michael RJ Campbell takes the role and runs with it. With a fantastic sense of physical comedy and an enormous stage presence, he is absolutely divine in the role.
It would be a pleasure to report that the entire production was as strong as the two leads, but, unfortunately, whenever the show focuses on the supporting cast, it begins to lose its way. This is actually mostly due to the material’s sloppy quality when not laser-focused on the central relationship. The secondary characters are not written strongly enough, so the actors must be absolutely perfect for their roles to come across well, and while the cast is nowhere near incompetent, it also is not exceptional, and thus the show becomes heavily bogged down. This may also be related to the issue of the sound design, which is poorly amplified and frequently difficult to hear. It is possible that Joseph Alvarado, in the role of the maid, is absolutely hysterical, but I cannot say that I caught even a single word that he said the entire evening. The two central actors remain comprehensible throughout, but know that if you attend this production, you will be struggling to understand everything that is being said.
The physical production, too, suffers from a certain ramshackle quality (including a certain set piece that stretches the limits of good taste) but in a way is appropriate for the show. La Cage is messy, but that does not prevent it from being highly enjoyable. This production could certainly be called a mess, but if you don’t have fun, you aren’t paying attention.