Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

la cage aux folles

La Cage Aux Folles At The Stratford Festival

I was such a devotee of the 1978 French film, La Cage Aux Folles, that I assiduously avoided all of its various American stage and film adaptations. Until now. I’m glad I waited to break this particular fast with the glorious production of La Cage starring the could-there-possibly-be-anyone-better duo of Steve Ross and Sean Arbuckle now packing them in at the Avon Theatre.

Technically, this La Cage Aux Folles is not an adaptation of the film. The rights were unavailable so the musical was adapted from the play by Jean Poiret on which the film is based. I doubt anyone will notice and who cares anyway? Because the result is full of a lot of guts and a lot of glitter.

The redoubtable Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and Jerry Herman the music and lyrics. The good news is that director Thom Allison and choreographer Cameron Carver, along with music director Franklin Brasz have brought it all to smashing, glitzy, Technicolor life.

Georges (Sean Arbuckle) and Albin (Steve Ross) operate a gay nightclub in Saint Tropez, the eponymous La Cage Aux Folles. Albin stars as drag diva Zaza, while Georges handles the management side of things.

Thanks to a long-ago one-night stand with a woman (would the term “walk on the tame side” be apropos?), Georges has a son, Jean-Michel (James Daly) who wants to marry Anne (Heather Kosik), a sweet young thing who just so happens to be the daughter of the president of the rabidly homophobic Tradition, Family, and Morality party dedicated to French moral purity. Her parents (Juan Chioran and Sara-Jeanne Hosie) want to meet his parents. Hilarity ensues and you’ll get no spoilers from me, although I’m guessing that the outlines, at least, of the plot are by now widely known.

The crowning glory of La Cage Aux Folles is that it spends just as much time putting us in the audience of the various shows that George’s cabaret mounts as it does with the plot, often blending the two. If you have never seen a drag show, this is your chance to see one of the best.

Allison, Carver and “Les Cagelles,” as the chorus is known, have created one of the best drag extravaganzas I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a bunch, going all the way back to the early seventies when a then unknown Harvey Fierstein was plying his trade in New York’s far East Village.

The cast is as close to ideal as one could hope. Steve Ross gets the lead role he has long deserved and he knocks it out of the gay ballpark. He is now hilarious, now heart breaking and he doesn’t miss a beat along the way.

His rendition of “I Am What I Am” brings down the first act curtain and brings down the house along with it. It’s the kind of moment in musicals usually associated with a legendary diva, but come to think of it, that’s precisely what Ross is in this personal triumph.

Sean Arbuckle has played both dramatic and musical leads before at the Festival. He was quite brilliant in Casey and Diana last season and smashing as the ever so macho pirate king in Pirates of Penzance a few years back. In La Cage, he is the ideal foil whose love and devotion allow Zaza to shine.

As Jean-Michel, James Daly gets his first major role and makes a fine male ingenue. But it is Heather Kosik as Anne, stepping out of Donna Feore’s chorus line into Festival stardom, who steals this corner of the show.

Not only is Kosik very pretty (dare I say “scrumptious”?) but she sings and dances divinely. If there’s a straight guy in your party who balks at the idea of spending three hours in the company of a bunch of drag queens, assure him that La Cage Aux Folles has something in it for him.

Juan Chioran and Sara-Jeanne Hosie are a delight as Anne’s hyper-conservative parents, while remaining almost unrecognizable in some ancillary roles.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that perhaps the real stars of the show are the costumes by David Boechler. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they cost more than the rest of the production put together. They are quite simply amazing.

Not only are the outfits for the drag show dazzling, especially Zaza’s incredible gowns, but the offstage, casual and not so casual wear of Georges and Albin are gorgeous and perfectly tailored.

Kimberly Purtell has lit it all perfectly and Brandon Kleiman has created an understated set, a series of receding proscenium arches outlined by traveling strip lights, that frame the proceedings very nicely indeed.

Another thing that makes La Cage Aux Folles exceptional is the statement it makes about family, love, and acceptance. That it debuted in 1983 during the hysteria caused by the AIDS epidemic is remarkable; that its message of tolerance and acceptance has still not touched major segments of society is, frankly, depressing.

With La Cage Aux Folles and Something Rotten the Festival has two smash musicals that will have patrons arguing over which they liked best. By all means see them both and join the discussion.

La Cage Aux Folles continues at the Avon Theatre through October 26, 2024, unless it gets extended, which is highly likely. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Stratford Festival website.

Footnote: La Cage Aux Folles has a somewhat scandalous backstory. The musical’s original producer was Alan Carr, who assembled what seemed like the perfect team to create an Americanized version of La Cage to be called The Queen of Basin Street – Jay Presson Allen (book), Maury Yeston (music), Mike Nichols (director), and Tommy Tune (choreography).

But Carr, a Broadway novice, needed the help of those more experienced with the ins and outs of the Great White Way. When Fritz Holt and Barry Brown came on board they immediately fired Carr’s dream team, all of whom did the honorable thing and sued. This was show biz, after all.

I am pleased to note that only my Yale classmate and fellow Pundit, Maury Yeston succeeded in wresting a small royalty from the production.

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