Saturday 12 August 2023

Stage: We are what we are

La Cage aux Folles
book Harvey Fierstein
music & lyrics Jerry Herman
based on the play by Jean Poiret
director Tim Sheader
with Billy Carter, Carl Mullaney, Shakeel Kimotho, Ben Culleton, Sophie Pourret, John Owen-Jones, Julie Jupp, Debbie Kurup, Jak Allen-Anderson, Daniele Coombe
musical director Ben van Tienen
choreography Stephen Mear
sets Colin Richmond
lighting Howard Hudson
Regent's Park Theatre, London • 29.Jul-16.Sep

It's been 40 years since this musical premiered on Broadway, and 50 years since the original French play was written, and yet there are no signs of ageing in this buoyant and inventive new production under the open air in Regent's Park. Avoiding the usual drag cliches, the designers have gone for something fresh and eye-catchingly offbeat, celebrating the full range of queer identities in all their frisky, camp glory. It's the kind of show that cant help but put a huge smile on your face, even as it elicits a tear or two of happy emotion while sharply poking weighty themes.

Set on the French Riviera populated mainly by Brits, the story centres around Georges (Carter), who runs the eponymous faded-glory drag burlesque theatre alongside his longterm partner Albin (Mullaney), a diva performer who is feeling threatened as middle age encroaches. When Georges' 24-year-old son Jean-Michel (Culleton) announces that he's getting married, both of them panic. And as his fiancee's father is a rabid arch-conservative who wants to shut down drag clubs, Jean-Michel asks Georges to play it straight. Because Albin incapable of doing that, Jean-Michel asks him to stay away. Neither takes this well, leading to high drama, lively farce and several fabulous musical numbers.

All of this is infused with deep feelings, as the show beautifully establishes the relationships from the start, giving the conflicts a sense of authenticity that's often powerfully moving. At the centre is the issue that Albin raised Jean-Michel as his son, playing the maternal role in his life. The way the situation is resolved is surprisingly complex but never heavy-handed. And the political issues gurgle strongly without taking over, adding new resonance at a time when ignorant lawmakers are trying to criminalise drag artists.

The staging is skilful and often breathtaking, with a range of dance numbers that reveal the considerable skills of the large dance ensemble, many of whom create memorable scene-stealing side characters. Costumes major in sequins and colour, but never in the obvious ways. And the witty touches that infuse the wardrobe are echoed in the funny and demanding choreography. But of course it's the songs that get under the skin. Mullaney delivers a startlingly emotive rendition of the iconic anthem I Am What I Am, rising from internalised pain to triumphant defiance. And The Best of Times is such a spectacular show-stopper that we never want it to end. Indeed, it very nearly doesn't. Meanwhile, there are earworms like Song on the Sand and With You on My Arm, plus the emotive kick of Look Over There.

A couple of the other numbers aren't quite as strong, the period is a bit of a muddle, and the story's conclusion feels rushed and perhaps unsatisfying. But the dazzling finale more than makes up for that. By reinventing this venerable musical so creatively, this company has breathed new life into Harvey Fierstein's witty book and Jerry Herman's indelible music. It was always timely, and now it's also clearly timeless.



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