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 The Theatreguide.London Review

La Cage Aux Folles
Menier Chocolate Factory Winter 2007-2008; Playhouse Theatre 2008-2009

(Our original January 2008 review. Scroll down for a return to the West End transfer.)

They really do do it better on Broadway than anywhere else, and they really do do it better at the Menier than most other places.

'It' is the Broadway musical, exemplified here by Jerry Herman's 1982 hit (based on the 1978 French film). It's big and brassy, light and fluffy - machine-made, perhaps, but a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

And, as is rapidly becoming habitual, this small off-West End theatre delivers a production of energy, polish and imagination that belies a budget that would barely pay for tea breaks in the West End.

The gay couple who run and star in a south-of-France drag bar (one as the compere, the other as diva) must cope with the news that the son one managed to produce in an uncharacteristic lapse into heterosexuality now wants to marry the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician, and they have to act straight for a meeting with the in-laws-to-be.

There's clearly plenty of opportunity for both farce and sentimentality, along with mock-production numbers set in the club.

The songs are by Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, etc), which means they are the best of Broadway pop. 'With Anne on My Arm' is a lovely ballad, 'The Best of Times' an irresistible singalong and the big numbers all Broadway-brassy, while 'I Am What I Am' rightly became a gay lib anthem.

Harvey Fierstein's book flirts with the outrageous without ever going too far, and includes subtle touches that keep the characters from lapsing into cartoons.

And so the show is great fun, and once again the Menier team, led by producer David Babani, mount a production whose size, elaborateness and energy are the envy and wonder of higher-budgeted producers.

Director Terry Johnson and choreographer Lynne Page, aided by David Farley's inventive stage design, somehow manage to expand the playing area so that it rarely seems cramped. The dances are both colourful and witty, and the central characterisations have been given depth and warmth without sacrificing comedy.

Philip Quast plays the more masculine Georges with a warm and attractive mix of the butch, the tender and the broadly comic, while Douglas Hodge insightfully makes Albin the sadly but bravely ageing diva first, and the effete man only secondarily.

If Neil McDermott is merely serviceable as the son, Jason Pennycooke predictably and delightfully steals all his scenes as the flaming butler/maid.

It isn't absolute perfection, of course. They've had to cut the number of 'girls' in the chorus line, and I would have preferred their being played a little less broadly, to allow just the suggestion of the illusion that they were real women.

The sound engineering is off, and even some of the major voices can't be heard, even in the small theatre. I can't believe Albin would wear such an ill-fitting suit, even if he's happier in dresses.

And Douglas Hodge's rendition of 'I Am What I Am' lacks the energy and anger I can still remember from 26 years ago.

But those are cavils. The show is sold out for its Menier run but a West End transfer is inevitable, and should not be missed by anyone looking for a Good Night Out.

Gerald Berkowitz

NOVEMBER 2008: If I was pleased with the Menier Chocolate Factory production of the Jerry Herman - Harvey Fierstein musical last January, I am ecstatic about its transfer to the West End.

Some key cast changes, an enriched performance at its centre, and a larger but not overwhelming production make La Cage one of the best musicals and most enjoyable nights out in town.

This is the one about the mature gay couple coping with the news that one's son is marrying the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician and trying to look straight for a meeting with the in-laws-to-be.

The gay bar setting allows for a lot of mock razzle-dazzle, the plot generates a lot of farce, and the central couple are viewed with warmth and respect – all packaged in the bright, bouncy pop that is Jerry Herman music.

Let me focus on the changes from the Menier to the Playhouse. For me the biggest is the performance of Douglas Hodge as the drag diva.

As I may have hinted in my original review, his characterisation and performance seemed a bit tentative back in January.

But the actor's comfort and confidence have really grown, so that his Albin is arguably the best musical performance of the year - a fully developed comic characterisation played with the energy and elan of a real star.

Hodge has found all the laughs, and plays them with authority, and his performance of the iconic 'I Am What I Am' first act finale, if not quite as anger-driven as George Hearn's on Broadway a quarter-century ago, is filled with a lifetime of pain and passion, and is as chilling and enthralling as you could wish for.

Philip Quast, who played Georges with a solid masculinity, has been replaced by Denis Lawson, who brings a greater sense of the cabaret performer's smoothness and lightness.

I wouldn't say one is better than the other, just that Lawson is different, and his new approach contributes nicely to both the characterisation and the musical comedy feel of the evening.

The Playhouse, less cramped than the Menier but not so big as to overwhelm the show, proves to be an ideal venue, and the new set design by Tim Shortall hits just the right tone of moderate-budget elegance, reflected in the theatre's own décor. So the drag production numbers are just the right size and the quieter personal moments and songs all register.

Jason Pennycooke returns as the way-over-the-top butler and Iain Mitchell as the uptight politico, but the rest of the supporting cast is largely new, and all more than adequate. Director Terry Johnson and choreographer Lynne Page have enlarged everything just the right amount.

Jerry Herman has (unlike Sondheim or even Lloyd Webber) never been a groundbreaker, and this show about a gay couple is as unthreatening to Aunt Edna's sensitivities as Hello Dolly. But Herman is also a master Broadway songwriter, and the songs are all both hummable and memorable.

With a couple of very attractive star performances at its centre and a staging both colourful and witty, this transfer of La Cage Aux Folles is an uninterrupted delight.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of La Cage Aux Folles - Menier Chocolate Factory and Playhouse Theatre 2008