Dallas — Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman never met an exclamation point he didn’t love. True, his only musical title that uses the jazz hands of punctuation is Hello, Dolly!—but really, you could slap one at the end of most of his titles and no one would question its purpose.
Mame! Dear World! Mack & Mabel! La Cage aux Folles!
It would even work for most of the song titles. “A Little More Mascara!” “It Takes a Woman!” “It’s Today!” (The latter, from Mame, does in fact have one.)
The exclamation goes beyond the printed punctuation that looks like an upside-down, lowercase "i"; so many of his characters, even beyond Dolly Levi and Mame, are walking, singing exclamation points with personality. “Larger than life” doesn’t do them justice. Not even "larger than life and in a musical!"
Therefore, the moments of metaphorical stage whispers are to be cherished.
That’s what Uptown Players and director Cheryl Denson do best with the current revival of La Cage aux Folles at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Among all the sparkles and fireworks—we’re talking about a show set at a drag cabaret in St. Tropez, after all—the tender moments, mostly between the central characters of Albin (Mikey Abrams) and Georges (Bob Hess), are worth savoring.
Herman had help from Harvey Fierstein, who wrote the book, adapted from the French farce of the same name by Jean Poiret. That play was also a striking French film, and the inspiration for the American film The Birdcage, which notably added a character only talked about in the musical. The original 1983 Broadway production of the Herman/Fierstein musical racked up Tonys, winning Best Musical in 1984 and running for two years. (The Pulitzer committee preferred Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, though.)
It has been revived twice on Broadway, and the set and costumes from the most recent, in 2011, have been rented by Uptown for this production. Rodney Dobbs modified Tim Shortall’s set for the Kalita space; and Suzi Cranford adapted Matthew Wright’s costumes. Along with Michael Moore’s wigs and makeup, the visuals on this stage are dazzling.
Story recap: Albin is the headlining performer, Zaza, in his and Georges’ drag club, La Cage aux Folles. They’ve been companions for two decades, raising Georges’ son Jean-Michel (Seth Womack), now an adult and affianced to Anne Dindon (Emmie Kivell). The problem: Her father, Deputy Dindon (Christopher Curtis), is an ultra-conservative politician trying to legislate his idea of “morality,” like Mike Pence without the whiskers-on-kittens charm. Thus, Jean-Michel’s plan to have his future in-laws (Mrs. Dindon is played by Jenny Tucker) to dinner to meet his father, at their home above the nightclub, is fraught with problems. For one, Jean-Michel’s hope to straighten up the house—what with drama-prone Albin and the expressive, costume-savvy houseboy Jacob (Alex B. Heika) always around—is fraught with problems. Hilarity-through-calamity ensues. In heels.
Although Friday’s opening night revealed a production just slightly less polished than Uptown’s 2015 stunner Catch Me If You Can, there are many more moving parts in La Cage. Again, in heels.
Mikey Sylvester’s complicated choreography for the Cagelles, the gaggle of drag queens performing nightly at the club, is more fun because it’s performed by a chorus of men in heels (played by Cale Richards, Trevor Wright, Sammy Swim, Terry G. Snyder, Kyle Fleig and Michael Gomez), showing influences ranging from Michael Bennett to French can-can to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Unisons were off a skosh on Friday, a small gripe that is only worth making because Uptown is in the top five of DFW’s highest Actor’s Equity Association levels (meaning higher-paying), and chorus work there has been next-level in recent years. The only local theater that consistently has better chorus dancers is Dallas Theater Center, and they import most of those from New York where, let’s be honest, the best of the best chorus dancers are based because of access to auditions for tours and regional work (and, OK, Broadway).
As good as musical director Kevin Gunter’s eight-member orchestra (including him) is, I wish they could be in view of the audience, especially for a fancier drag club where there would be live musicians.
As Albin, Abrams, who has always been fun to watch, outs himself as an actor with deeper dramatic skills. On Friday, he went flat a few times in his big first-act closing number “I Am What I Am,” but his chemistry with Hess in “With You on My Arm” is the thing of perfect sunsets and a favorite pair of slippers. Georges is a fantastic role for Hess—maybe the most perfect fit I've seen with this actor—and “Song on the Sand” is one of the show’s quieter moments that’s comfortingly, lovingly whispered under Hess' care.
Heika’s physical comedy has strengthened, but should be fine-tuned a few more notches for the role of Jacob. He still gets more laughs than any other character. The opening visual of the second act with Albin and Jacob is one of the biggest and most deserved laughs you’ll have at any theater. As is the second-act dinner scene, with Womack and Abrams hitting a marvelous comedy stride.
One could easily make parallels to the current era, even after major wins for the LGBT community, what with loud voices who want to stifle equality and shove us back to the wrong side of history. But La Cage is at its heart about relationships, notably the love between Albin and Georges. Even when tested, love wins.
Overall, Denson’s production hits the exclamation points that Herman demands, but is strongest in those moments where a semicolon, or even an ellipsis, is the right choice.