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.

Singin’ in the Rain

The Palace Theatre in London

“Come on with the rain I’ve a smile on my face”

In Hollywood in the 1920s, silent stars begin to panic as talking pictures take over. Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown see this as the perfect opportunity to sing and dance on stage but Don’s screen partner Lina Lamont is lacking in any talent. He has, however, met and fallen for singing sensation Kathy who agrees to dub Lina in a film musical.

Singin’ in the Rain is a seminal film musical and I am a film musical buff. I was very careful approaching this show not just because past productions have not been praised or that the classic the film critic in me (which is a big part of me) feels should it remain untouched. The main problem I had was the feeling there was nothing that could be added to the film by putting it stage. Other movicals I had seen like Hairspray had embellished the film to make it a true musical but Singin’ in the Rain was already a great musical. Despite my mixed feelings, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I also owed my Nan a trip to a show she would actually like.

I needn’t have worried. Sitting in the theatre I could have completely forgot the film version. It felt in every way like a traditional book musical. Though Gene Kelly is not easy to replace, seeing that amazing dancing live is another thing altogether. Adam Cooper was able to pull off the role by dancing, singing and having absolutely irresistible charm. As soon as he begin to sing the ‘do do do do do do do’ of the title song, the audience clapped in anticipation. If it weren’t for the shrieks of people in the front row who got wet, it would have been perfect. I really appreciated ‘The Broadway Melody’ on-stage with people running around in bright colours dancing. The lighting was great in creating the mood and transforming the whole stage. It was an array of light and colours that deserves a place on the stage. The whole number is a pitch by Cosmo and once it is done Cosmo is out of breath as if he had been explaining it all. He is then asked to tell it again and faints. The show seamlessly develops on the comedy style of the film like this but even original lines are freshened by a more hammed up performance in the case of Cosmo or Lina.

Songs from the film were embellished so simply, ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’ is sung by Don as in the film. Yet after one verse Kathy is perplexed by his singing to her and calls over a policeman to deal with her stalker. The policeman immediately joins in the song followed by others in the street, making it a chorus number.

At first Kathy’s speaking voice seemed shrill and her opening lines are somewhat clunky but her singing makes you forget that small part. In a film you rely less on the actual talent of a singer than on shots of the on-screen audience’s reaction to tell you that a singer is impressive. As Kathy sang ‘You are my Lucky Star’ there was no denying the talent.

The overture was played with the company acting as extras, costume staff and directors at monumental pictures. I suppose it was meant to give the feeling of a Hollywood studio but there weren’t that many people and they were only on half the stage. It was no ‘Let’s Have Lunch’ from Sunset Boulevard or the choreographed opening scene in Guys and Dolls. Lina Lamont’s screeching voice is comedy gold and naturally they would want to develop on that by giving her a song. I have no objection to that but her song ‘What’s Wrong with Me’ ironically has something quite wrong with it that you can’t quite describe. It isn’t funny or catchy and doesn’t take advantage of this deluded character who says words funny. I would have expected something along the lines of ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ in Guys and Dolls instead of this nothing of a song. But these last comments are really nit-picking at what is overall a brilliant musical.

Rock of Ages: The Musical

Shaftesbury Theatre in London

“Ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ but a good time, and it don’t get better than this”

Back in the sexy big haired decade that was the eighties, a boy and girl dream of breaking into the rock music scene, and into each other’s hearts: awww. The bar/hub of rock music they currently work at is being threatened by evil German (of course) property developers. The owner has a plan to raise enough money to keep the bar but it depends on the getting unmanageable rock star Stacee Jaxx to perform.

Setting the right tone for a serious musical is hard. Setting the tone for a fun musical is easier but I’m still impressed when it’s completely perfected as it was in Rock of Ages. The theatre has panties and bras hanging from the chandelier, there are street signs surrounding the stage and they hand out little fake lighters that you can hold up for the slow songs. The usual announcement to turn off all phones is made by David Coverdale from White Snake and he concedes that you can use recording equipment if “you’re incredibly hot and willing to show us your breasts.” After an overture of classic guitar riffs, the Narrator Lonny bursts onto the stage and begins to describe the sunset strip in the eighties in all its glory. ‘Just Like Livin’ in Paradise’ provides every audience member with the feeling of awesomeness a show like this requires. So now the audience is feeling the eighties and the comedy of men trying to see breasts, but what of the plot and characters?

Using various rock songs prevents the plot and characters from being overly original but this allows them to humorously embrace the clichés and integrate the songs better. Lonny may be no Andrew Lloyd Sondheim (his words) but he knows that the cute boy character Drew must have a cute girl love interest which leads to the introduction of Sherrie. Combining some dialogue with the opening of ‘Sister Christian’ we get the background information that Sherrie dreams of being a rock singer and has unsupportive parents. By the time the first chorus starts, she’s in LA looking for her start. That character has been done but now we get the gist of her quickly (think how long it took to get to that stage of the plot in Coyote Ugly or Burlesque) and through the medium of song (as is fitting in a musical). Take note Mama Mia: this is how a jukebox musical is done.

The show keeps up an amazingly high energy and the characters fill it with so many little gags. Driving to his date with Sherrie Drew flips off another driver, still singing ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’. Lonny makes an eighties reference and tells the young people in the front row to google it. Sherrie’s feet stick up over the toilet cubicle in which she’s having sex with Stacee Jaxx. That’s right, Drew friend zones himself and then gets jealous when she sleeps with someone else. The show touches on life lessons like that.

The love story is intertwined with the plot of Germans who want to close rock music haven The Bourbon Room to put up expensive housing. Opposing this take over is Regina who sings some good songs but is annoying and her whiny voice gives no power to ‘We’re Not Gonna Take it.’  The German’s campiness can be a little over the top, culminating in ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ performed in a bright pink leotard. The bromance between Lonny and Dennis as they struggle to save the Bourbon Room also culminates in a camp number: ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore’ describes a friendship of such magnitude, that it breaks the man laws of not discussing emotions or hugging other men.

The costumes, hair and make-up all scream eighties and the choreography nails all the fist pumping, foot stomping moves of the time. Particularly inventive is the dance sequence for ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You/Heat of the Moment.’ Sherrie has been fired after her affair with Stacee Jaxx and unfriended by the jealous Drew. Now stripping in a gentleman’s club, she is requested to dance by none other than Stacee himself and decides takes her anger out by beating him up him during the strip tease. I decided to see this show after finding out that Adam Shankman would be making it into a film, ironically finding out how good the show was made me more excited for what would ultimately be a slow and convoluted film adaptation. There’s a level of corniness that film isn’t prepared to do, nor were they prepared to let Tom Cruise play the bumbling supporting character Stacee Jaxx is in the show. The ultimate problem of the film was its inability to recreate the mood that the show produced; that almost indefinable quality on-stage will keep it going long after the film version is forgotten.