Take a deep breath, open your eyes, you have arrived at La Cage Aux Folles. Signature Theatre does its utmost to deliver this ravishing, sensual, fabulous musical Directed by Matthew Gardiner with Musical Direction by Darius Smith, and succeeds making it the show of their season, which is saying something considering just how many smashing productions they’ve managed this year. Legend has told and rumor has promised this zesty, thrilling performance would dazzle theatergoers of Washington DC and there are simply not enough words to properly praise the nearly perfect production as it titillates audiences right to the edges of their chairs! And now? On with the extravaganza!
If you want to get a peek at all of the little secrets in Scenic Designer Lee Savage’s set, you won’t even have to book front row! Savage transforms the space so that the patrons attending La Cage can fully appreciate living life on an angle; the set cuts a gorgeous diagonal with a mock proscenium and hint of thrust in its structuring. Savage’s design is breathtaking; the intricate details of the Cagelle’s dressing room flanking either side of the main space creating a sense of enigmatic allure and artful appeal. Keeping the pit tastefully camouflaged above the main stage in the catwalk to the right and a plethora of Zaza’s too-illustrious-for-words gowns on a rack above to the left, Savage makes full use of every inch of space, which gives the sense of fulfillment and intimacy. Meticulously purposeful, the turntable allows for ease of scenic transition, moving from inside of the nightclub to outside and back without the cumbersome addition of excessive furnishings.
The glamour and glitz of the production is not merely reserved for the scenic resplendence in Lee Savage’s set but rather shared across the board with the design team, particularly Lighting Designer Jason Lyons. With a sharp eye and keen understanding of how to make daring and dramatic shifts in mood and scenery with just a hint of color or drastic drop in vibrancy, Lyons carries the torch of excellence consistently through his design work. Throwing a chocolate hue over the tier-draped curtain to give it the appearance of a backstage fabric takes the audience from in front of the performance space to be hind it in no time flat. Finding flattering warm shades that highlight the Cagelles during their various routines— both ensemble and individual— further showcases Lyons’ knowledge of both the play space and the performers working in it.
With a rare combination of girlish excitement and manly restraint, Wig Designer Anne Nesmith, Makeup Designer Andre Hopfer and Costume Designer Frank Labovitz confabulate an extravaganza all their own in the wardrobe department. So rarely does a show give cause to praise the wig and makeup artist, but both Hopfer and Nesmith are worthy of thunderous ovations for their remarkable design work. The full contouring that transforms Albin to Zaza and the Cagelles from pre-show to ferociously stage-ready are the masterful handiwork of Hopfer while each crowning ringlet and carefully coifed curl stacked upon so many heads are the fastidious craftsmanship of Nesmith. Seamlessly woven into the overarching vision of Labovitz’ creative couture, the layers of facial paint and innumerable hairpieces add an extra-special panache to the performance on the whole.
Labovitz cultures the stark electricity one could only find in notorious nightclub of the French Riviera into ever sparkly bugle bead and spangly sequin on each costume. Zaza’s uniquely impressive wardrobe deserves a full-length feature review all its own, but highlights include the stunning sapphire number as well as the Barbie-pink rhinestone set that appear to pop right off the perfectly corseted figure of the headlining star. Labovitz’ approach to the Cagelles’ costumes are equally impressive, giving them a fanciful flare all their own, but the most remarkable designer series to spring forth from his ingenius imagination is every piece of fashionable finery featured on Jacob. These dreamy designer dresses and dressings must be witnessed to be fully appreciated.
It’s not enough to look glamorous, elegant, and beautiful in Labovitz’ costumery, so Choreographer Matthew Gardiner takes the extravaganza to the next level with his sensational choreography. The routines executed by the Cagelles are no easy feat, and do to do such with flawless fabulousness is the mark of a truly devoted and seasoned dance master. The circular-linked kick-line is the pièce de résistance of Gardiner’s choreographic masterpiece. Energetically charged and enthusiastically delivered, Gardiner’s choreography completes the circuit when it comes to feeling alive on the stage of La Cage Aux Folles.
The Cagelles, most notorious and dangerous, provide a delicious level of deviousness to the performance on the whole. Performing as a unified ensemble with fully fleshed out attitudinal ferocity when it comes to the ‘off-stage’ moments in the dressing room, the core of six superb starlets deliver moment after moment of delectable dancing and outrageously fun moments that are sprinkled liberally throughout the performance. Phaedra (Phil Young) in particular is a knockout because of the enormous presence and punch of personality she brings to the stage. Young, alongside Cagelles Sam Brackley, Darius R. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, and Isaiah W. Young, digs their stilettos into the heart of the performance and doesn’t let up.
Jay Westin, the sixth Cagelle— Hanna— deserves an extra nod all his own for the vivacious vixen personality applied to the character. Though the interplay between Hanna and Francis (Michael Bunce) in Gardiner’s production is subtle, Westin delivers microscopic moments of the dominatrix personality that amplifies the humor of Bunce’s perpetual physical decline. Westin, as well as Phil Young, are the standout performers among these emphatically excited ensemble performers and give plenty of cause for tremendous applause every time the take the stage.
Cagelles and ingénues, La Cage has both and in this case the bubbly Anne (Jessica Lauren Ball) and earnestly misguided Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlan) comprise the latter category. Though Ball has no featured solos or song moments of her own there is something completely endearing about her overall demeanor that makes it easy to see why Scanlan’s character is so hung up on the girl. Scanlan, though sweet of voice, plays the character to a degree of easy despicability, making the audience experience his selfish and insensitive ways early on. Juxtaposing this against his clearly smitten affections toward Anne, as witnessed in “With Ann on My Arm”, Scanlan showcases his easy versatility as a performer.
The play’s central conflict revolves around the Dindon family, though really just Deputy Dindon (Mitchell Hébert) and Mme. Marie (Sherri L. Edelen.) Both Hébert and Edelen make their mark on the production, first as the humorously engaging M. & Mme. Renaud at the café outdoors during “Masculinity” and later as the staunch and stalwart conservative political parents of Anne. Edelen becomes a natural scene-stealer during the show’s finale with a hilarious little routine in a surprising costume, which for fear of spoiling the end, we’ll leave to the imagination. Hébert earns his performance wings during “The Best of Times is Now” with his difficult facial responses and his hilarious dance-attempt with Jean-Michel’s mother.
Scene-stealing harlot Jacob (DJ Petrosino) has a sassy flamboyance that starts a conflagration bright enough to light up the whole of the French Riviera. Petrosino is an uproarious comic genius, knowing exactly how to temper his saucy remarks, his sarcastic biting commentary, and overall razor-sharp approach to the interactions Jacob deals out when it comes to interacting with Georges. Between flaunting his larger-than-life personality in various instances (the scene-stealing moment in “Anne on My Arm” as well as the ‘barking butler’ bit come immediately to mind) and sashaying with enough confidence to put Beyoncé to shame, Petrosino delivers the most striking and impressive supporting role in recent Signature Theatre stage history.
Filled with so many old friends, so many new faces, and so many old friends with new faces, the experience at La Cage Aux Folles would not be complete without the charming Georges (Brent Barrett) to escort the audience along for the jubilant journey. Barrett takes the character of Georges and plays him tight-chested and close to the surface. This is a remarkable choice which pays off by the performance’s end because it makes the tender intimate moments shared with Albin (Bobby Smith), in such duets as “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand” (and its reprise), wonderfully honest. Barrett’s mellifluous voice is charismatic, particularly when slipping from cheeky spoken words that directly address the audience right into musical numbers, like the intro and the finale. “Look Over There” is delivered in full rich sound with stern tenacity and a rare exposure of the character’s heart.
The working chemistry between Barrett and Smith is the glittery glitzy glue that holds the show together. Ups and downs are traversed over the course of the show between the couple and every living moment of their romantic journey feels inspiringly organic. The flawless emotional recollection that plays across Smith’s face as Barrett serenades him for “Song on the Sand” is telling of the depths of their relationship. Even when they’re fighting, even when they’re silly, the exchange of compassion, emotion, and heartfelt feelings are the precise sentiments with which these two characters should be portrayed. The littles of details— like the way their fingers inch cautiously across the café table toward one another during “Song on the Sand”— are attended to and perpetuate that unyielding truth of love, permeating every fiber of their on-stage relationship. Never a more perfect pairing has been made for Albin and George than with Smith and Barrett in the way they’re working together in this production.
Hang onto your wig and give a big welcome to Zaza (Bobby Smith as the incomparable Albin) our star! Smith transforms the role of Albin/Zaza into his own special creation, which results in a stellar experience from start to finish. Glamor incarnate— both of physical aesthetic and radiant personality— Smith strolls through the versatility of the role like an old companion arm in arm with the duality of the character’s nature. Sensational does not begin to cover one tenth of the performance Smith is giving, whether its melting down in marvelous melodramatic fashion over the littlest things or delivering striking sincerity in the more serious moments. “A Little More Mascara” lets Smith showcase his soul in full voice, which is both astonishingly well-toned and intensely well-sustained. The title number, and all the audience interaction that accompanies it, is not only owned but slayed by Smith in this production; a vivacious carnival of humor, self-value, showmanship, and a rollicking good time all culminating in one sweeping stroke of genius from his performance.
Smith furthers the impressive way he masters the stage in the second act with his touching and truly heartfelt rendition of “The Best of Times”, taking his remarkable voice to task in the number and leading everybody on the stage into the most joyous moment of the production. Pages and pages could be spent detailing just how utterly inspiring Smith’s performance is, between his command of presence, his thoughtful allocation of the character’s physicality and vocal affectation, and the overall panache portrayed, but the awe-inspiring moment that clinches the performance into and outstanding experience is Smith’s delivery of “I Am What I Am.” Crafting each breath of this number to utter perfection with a remarkable felicity for raw emotion, Smith blows the audience away with this performance, not only with his vocal capability— the tremendous skill required to transition and sustain the note at the end of the number alone deserves its own ovation— but his emotional grounding into the song. Bravo, Bobby Smith, bravo.
Don’t go alone to La Cage Aux Folles. Bring every friend you’ve ever known, you are guaranteed to have the evening of your life!
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
La Cage Aux Folles plays through July 10, 2016 in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre— 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.