With Sunday’s 71st Annual Tony Awards fresh in our minds, I bet you’re thinking of seeing some great musical theater, huh? Well, of course we have lots going on in N.J. right now, including “La Cage aux Folles” at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park (Monmouth County).
“La Cage aux Folles” originally opened on Broadway in 1983, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. It was revived on Broadway in 2004 and again in 2010 – both times winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
So yeah, this musical’s got cred.
It was based on a 1973 French play (where it gets the French name) by Jean Poiret, and that play was also the source of the 1996 film “The Birdcage” with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.
“La Cage” features music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (who also wrote “Hello, Dolly!” – which won this year’s Best Musical Revival Tony – and “Mame”) and a book by Harvey Fierstein (famous for all kinds of things like “Hairspray” and “Kinky Boots”).
The show opens with Georges, a master of ceremonies, welcoming the audience to his St. Tropez drag nightclub, La Cage aux Folles (which literally means “the cage of mad women,” by the way). For many years, Georges has lived in an apartment above La Cage with his wife, Albin, a drag queen and the star performer of La Cage aux Folles, under the stage name Zaza.
As Albin gets ready to perform, Georges’ 24-year old son Jean-Michel arrives home to say that he’s engaged to a woman named Anne. The problem is that Anne’s father is the head of the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party.” And guess how THEY feel about drag clubs? Yup, you guessed it – they want to close them all down.
Jean-Michel has lied to his fiancée (umm… someone should tell him that’s not the best way to start your marriage), saying that Georges is a retired diplomat, and now Anne’s parents want to meet Jean-Michel’s. Jean-Michel asks Albin to hide out from the gathering and also asks his dad to redecorate his apartment in a less flamboyant manner. Finally, Jean-Michel asks Georges to invite Sybil (Jean-Michel’s birth mother) to come and pretend to be Georges’ longtime spouse.
While Albin is performing onstage as Zaza, Georges and Jean-Michel quickly redecorate the apartment, removing Albin’s gowns and other traces of the drag show life. Albin, of course, walks in on this, and Georges and Albin confess to the plan. Instead of exploding, Albin goes back onstage, tells Georges and Jean-Michel to leave, and sings one of the most famous anthems of this show, “I Am What I Am.” He then throws his wig at Georges and departs in a huff, which concludes Act I.
Act II begins the next morning, where Georges finds Albin at the Prominade Café and apologizes. Georges suggests that Albin join the families for dinner, but dresses as macho “Uncle Al.” (Yup, go ahead. Call him Al.) Albin is still upset, but agrees to the charade to help Jean-Michel. But, kids aren’t always grateful when they should be [all the parents reading this, including me, nod knowingly], and doesn’t like this idea. Georges reminds Jean-Michel about how good of a parent Albin has been to him all of these years, just as they receive word that Sybil (the birth mother) can’t come.
Anne’s parents arrive, and Albin tries to save the day by showing up as Jean-Michel’s 40-year-old mother, in pearls and sensible shoes. (And really, as a nearly 40-year-old mother myself, it pains me to write that description, although hell may freeze over before I conform to it.)
In all this mess, the dinner gets burned, so the group heads out to a local restaurant, Chez Jacqueline, which belongs to an old friend of Albin and Georges. Of course, no one tells Jacqueline of the situation, so she asks Albin (Zaza) to perform a song, to which he agrees. Everyone in the restaurant enjoys and takes part in the song, causing Albin to tear off his wig and reveal his true identity.
Back at the apartment, Anne’s parents try to convince her to leave Jean-Michel, but she refuses (good girl!) because she loves him. Jean-Michel feels shame over how he’s treated Albin, and asks his forgiveness, which is granted. As Anne’s parents leave, Jacqueline (from the restaurant) shows up with the press, ready to photograph the notorious anti-homosexual activists with Albin/Zaza.
However, if Anne’s parents agree to the marriage, Georges will help them escape through La Cage downstairs. They do, but must be dressed in drag, of course. With everyone gone, Albin and Georges sing of their love before sharing a kiss.
At Axelrod, “La Cage” stars Broadway’s Nat Chandler as Georges and Joe Necci as Zaza. The show is directed by Kathryn Markey and choreographed by Todd Labron Underwood, with Joseph Elefante leading an on-stage band.
This Alexrod show opened on June 2, where Axelrod also hosted a special martini and prosecco reception to benefit Garden State Equality; an event sponsored by Tito’s Handmade Vodka (which matched the donations made from patrons), Banfi Wines & Bolla and Cabaret for Life, Inc.
When you boil it down to its basics, “La Cage aux Folles” is about true love. It follows love in many formats, from romantic love (Albin and Georges, Jean-Michel and Anne), to friendship (Jacqueline for Albin and Georges) to familial (Albin, Georges and Jean-Michel). And true love really is the most noble cause of them all.
“La Cage Aux Folles” takes place at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, located at 100 Grant Avenue in Deal Park, NJ. Remaining performances are June 15 at 8:00 p.m. and June 18 at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $34-36 for adults, $31-33 for seniors and $25 for students. For more information and to purchase, visit axelrodartscenter.com.