La Cage Aux Folles

Playhouse Theatre in London

 

“We face life though it’s sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter. Face life with a little guts and lots of glitter.”

A gay couple’s relationship is tested when their son tries to hide his parent’s sexuality from the ultra-conservative parents of his fiancée. Same plot as the hilarious but unfortunately non-musical film The Birdcage.

One night, in an attempt to achieve some form of domestic bliss, I watched Better Homes And Gardens. In this episode they were demonstrating how easily you can turn your old records into fabulous clocks to hang on the wall of any child’s bedroom. The record in question that they used for this demonstration was an original Australian Cast recording of La Cage Aux Folles. I have never forgiven them. Such is my love of La Cage Aux Folles that I gave up all my hopes of domestic bliss, refusing to watch the show and considered who I could complain to about this blatant disregard for Australian Musical Theatre displayed on Channel Seven. La Cage really is one of those special musicals.

Musical comedies, however well-written, are often considered frivolous and out of touch with modern audiences. Serious musicals such as West Side Story and Cabaret are thought of with an air of sophistication because of their socio-political commentary, the kind of commentary that the humble comedy is thought to lack. La Cage Aux Folles centers on an openly gay couple who have happily raised a child together. While fairly tame by today’s standards, the show opened in 1983 as the world was still struggling through the AIDS epidemic. It is a testament to the team behind La Cage (composer Jerry Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein) that the musical could still manage to be hugely successful despite the negative connotations that people at that time felt about gay men like the characters (and cast) of the show.

 I personally admire the way the book has been beautifully crafted so that audiences who aren’t so fabulously inclined are able to accept, if not understand, the relationship on-stage. The first romantic song (‘With Anne On My Arm’) is a straight one, sung by son Jean-Michel about his girlfriend. This tune that portrayed a traditional romance is then reprised as ‘With You On My Arm’, a song between two gay men. The couples use the same song because it is the same feelings of love and romance being portrayed. Love is analogous and if you can understand the romance between Jean-Michel and Anne then you can understand the romance between Albain and Georges.

Similarly impressive is the song ‘Look Over There.’ Jean-Michel’s biological father Georges sings it to his son as a reminder that Albain is, for all intents and purposes, Jean-Michel’s mother. While this could have been an opportunity for a politically charged soapbox speech, that just isn’t the style of La Cage. Instead we get a touching description of the many things a parent has done for their child with sentiments so universal that the audience is convinced of Albain’s right as a parent to Jean-Michel.

While there are numbers that rejoice in the campiness of the gay night club setting (complete with drag queens, flashy elaborate costumes, outrageous dancing and witty humour that only gay men can write), the heart of the show is carried by this loving family. When informed that his step-son wishes to hide him from the prospective in-laws, Albain is visibly crushed but says nothing. Seeing the usual drama/drag queen so utterly defeated shows more internal pain that if he were to cry hysterically. Being told to hide himself away like this drives him to sing the musical’s most contentious and most celebrated number ‘I Am What I Am.’

I saw the show in London with Denis Lawson as Georges and Douglas Hodge as Albain. I was very surprised a few years later when Hodge was re-cast as Albain on Broadway, not because he wasn’t brilliant in the role, but because it was a very British interpretation. The characters are all French but in almost every West End show, no one bothers to disguise their awful English accents. Hodge in particular accentuated his until he sounded like British gay comedian Alan Carr. He also added humour by doing impressions of the likes of Marlene Dietrich during the ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ number which I’m not sure if American’s would get. Hodge’s less masculine voice doesn’t make as bold a statement as George Hearn or Anthony Warlow singing ‘I Am What I Am’ but that would contradict with his delightfully playful ‘A Little More Mascarra.’

Sadly the story will always be relevant (thanks for that Tony Abbott) but the recent Broadway revival seems to have figured that as New Yorkers are more progressive, the score could be altered. The effect of the two love songs is ruined by added commentary by Georges in ‘With Anne On My Arm’ and the new words highlight Georges homosexuality for no obvious purpose than to sell Frasier as a gay man.

La Cage obviously means more to me because it deals with a subject close to my heart but this is musical theatre. These audiences are comprised mainly of gay men and fat girls who are friends with gay men. I’m sure many others would feel my seething rage at seeing felt numbers being glued around the edge of a La Cage Aux Folles record, even if they weren’t particularly interested in gay rights, just because they appreciate how fabulous a show it is.

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Annie

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Not only don’t we have the chicken, we don’t have the pot”

Little orphan Annie is taken care of over Christmas by crusty billionaire Warbucks. He almost immediately wants to adopt her and but she’s never given up hope of her real parents coming back for her. While Warbucks attempts to find them for Annie, a plan is formed to pose as her parents and claim the reward.

I’ve always has a secret love of the songs in Annie. They’re catchy and fun. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this because Annie is a very popular musical with multiple film versions, several references/parodies in popular culture and ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ was used in some sort of gansta mash up in one of the Austin Powers sequels. So despite the fact I don’t like children in the theatre on or off stage, I went to see Annie.

Of course I would have seen it anyway because Anthony Warlow was in it. I would see Anthony Warlow play in Rocky: The Musical (that’s a real thing). I have previously said that his involvement in a show acts as an assurance of the quality of that show. Oh Anthony, why must you turn my website into a house of lies? His talents in Annie are about as wasted as they would be in Rocky: The Musical (seriously, it’s a thing). Daddy Warbucks has two good songs and isn’t in the show for the first 30 minutes. Of course Warlow masters the role, using his physicality to show how uncomfortable he is with Annie at first and then how he warms up to her. Without Warlow’s talents, Warbucks inexplicably goes from crusty old man who doesn’t like children to wanting to adopt Annie in one song. And of course his ‘Something Was Missing’ is a soft tug at the heart but the man is capable of heart wrenching levels of emotion. I’m glad he’s been chosen to play the role on Broadway but I hope it isn’t long before they find something more worthy of his talents.

The songs and most of the characters were still there but the structure of Annie was just messy. The plot doesn’t flow neatly, especially in the first act. Film versions were right to omit the song ‘We’d Like to Thank You Hebert Hoover’ which drags out the start and completely contrasts with the tone of the other songs. Usually it’s sung sarcastically by people living in slums during the depression (which is depressing enough) but this production decided to make it more dramatic, frankly they turned it into something out of Les Miserables. Maybe they thought that with the economy right now people would relate better, but if you’re paying $100 for theatre tickets then you’re not feeling it. Highlighting the fact that millions are bitterly living in slums brings down the feel good end of orphans being adopted.

Carole Burnett is a comedian and she took the role of Miss Hannigan in that direction for the famous film version. The character is now more associated with being comically woeful which doesn’t mean it can’t be played differently but Nancy Hayes still makes the character too sinister, a woman that is completely indifferent to a plan that involves killing little Annie. Her only funny moment was calling Lily St. Regis (named after the hotel) a “dumb ho….tel.”

There were some good qualities to this production. Roosters dancing was fantastic, the background singers in ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’ had their own little personalities that kept the song amusing and the end of ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You’ sounded great sung in the round. It just wasn’t enough to redeem a messy book.

A Little Night Music

 Sydney Opera House (in Sydney)

“There’s many a tryst and there’s many a bed to be sampled and seen in the meanwhile, and a girl has to celebrate what passes by”

Fredrik revisits an old flame after months of sexless marriage with his young new wife. Many different liaisons and schemes ensue till everyone ends up with the right coupling.

Anthony Warlow performing the work of Stephen Sondhiem. You can tell how this review is going to go. I’ll start with the material itself. The plot is like a sexual game of chess, if you had emotional attachments to the pawns. Beautiful songs with all the wit and depth you expect from Sondheim. Truly worthy of a staging in our national icon.

The actors never let a laugh fly by, adding their own touches for example, Carl Magnus whistling a powerful little tune to intimidate Fredrick. Delightful additional props were also thrown in, such as little cars the actors peddled to their weekend in the country. It was a great relief to have a decent actor play Henrick. With a less talented actor, Henrick is whiney and annoying (if you’ve attempted to watch the film version, you’ll know) but the fact that he takes himself so seriously while being so pathetic is comedy gold – “We have sinned!…. And it was a complete failure!” The song ‘later’ should always be sung as powerfully as it was in this performance, belted out with sexual frustration bubbling over. The costumes and scenery were all elegant and fitting but what was really admirable was the use of the revolving stage floor. Most shows that use a turntable will really use that turntable, spinning the actors about at every opportunity. In this production the turntable was only used clearly when the actors waltz together, highlighting the absurdity of their coupling. Other times the back of the stage was set for the next scene behind a curtain and the floor simply revolved moving it into place, taking away the old set. Everything appeared so classy and elegant instead of showy.

I mentioned before that there was a film version of this show, a terrible awful version (by Hal Prince no less). It is thus so important that people attend musicals like this. It cannot be filmed so you when the opportunity comes to see it, you’ve simply got to go. Brought out as Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Landsbury approach the material on Broadway, it proves we Aussies are not too far behind. Anthony Warlow has always been an icon but the other actors in this show are definitely ones to watch: Anne became Laura in Doctor Zhivago and Carl Magnus became our Australian Phantom in Love Never Dies so fingers crossed the talented cast continues to dazzle us in Australian Musical Theatre.

Doctor Zhivago: A New Musical

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“I sing you all day long; a melody so strong and sweet and real”

A doctor and a poet, Zhivago struggles to choose between his family and his love Laura as the Russian revolution tears his world apart. But Zhivago is only one of three men in love with Laura…

Anthony Warlow. That is really all I need say. Of course I’m going to say more but his name on the poster not only symbolises sheer talent but acts as quality assurance for the material itself. The man never makes a wrong move. Along with Love Never Dies, this show was a part of the flux of Australian musical theatre that hit in 2011. An Australian production of a show that had only been briefly performed as a draft version in L.A years before. Or as the posters put it: A New Australian Musical. No denying the use of Australian talent in the show however. Once again Warlow shines with every note; even his stage presence is unprecedented. If there is one man who can really make you feel the anguish of a character through song it’s Warlow and luckily Zhivago has a lot of anguish. (Fairly) new-comer Lucy Maunder plays a sweet Laura but if there is any challenge to Warlow it is Martin Crewes as Pasha/Streinikov. An amazing performance for an amazing character. He begins as sweet comedic Pasha with an outstanding number in the first act but develops into Streinikov with the most tension built number in the second act.

I was anxious about seeing this one as there was no movie version, clips on youtube or soundtrack (only 2 bonus tracks released with my copy of Stage Whispers Magazine) to prepare me. I knew the plot from the classic non-musical film (which they didn’t follow much anyway) but I was walking into the unknown as I stepped into the theatre. Being an epic involving love, war, revolution and a battle of conscious I was expecting something along the lines of Les Miserables and I wasn’t completely wrong. There is similar subject matter and thus inspirational anthems (complete with flag waving) but the emotional pull  is organic and less the assault on the tear ducts that Les Mis can be (it has three deathbed songs! Three!). Like Les Mis the effects of the revolution are seen in many characters but Zhivago is much more political and serious. We get a song that gives the women’s view of war but we also see satirical comments of both the reds and whites and people switching sides to take advantage of the situation. Safe to say that Doctor Zhivago does not have the budget of Les Mis so in crossing time and place for this epic, some sets are nothing more than two benches. But while Les Mis has the barracade, Zhivago also has its main spectacle: moving projections. Truthfully it doesn’t sound like much but the result is flawless and adds to both set, plot and commentary in different places. For example as Yuri sits down to write his poems, words rain down upon the stage. Other times when big musicals would have thought out another complicated spectacle, simple stage effects work just as well. Being chased by the reds, Yuri hides while the stage turns dark and men line up with torches pointing into the audience moving an inch closer with each note. There are gun shots, people being hung, flash lighting, sound effects of war and planes in surround sound… it has a lot of action. Doctor Zhivago is not a little musical but it is an Australian work competing with the megamusical spectacles and doing a damn fine job. The most outstanding comparisons between this and the megamusicals are in the songs; lots of them, big, poetic and emotionally stirring numbers that simply stay with you. It is an absolute crime the world is being deprived of the soundtrack for “legal reasons.”