In 1983, La Cage aux Folles became one of the first Broadway hit musicals centered on a gay relationship and dealing with LGBT issues. “I Am What I Am” was lauded as a gay anthem, and many who see the show for the first time will have heard the song elsewhere, due to its many covers. The original Broadway production ran for 1,761 performances, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (Jerry Herman) and Best Book (Harvey Fierstein). The show has since had numerous revivals, including on Broadway and in London, and the 1973 French play upon which the musical was based was adapted into the 1996 Robin Williams / Nathan Lane / Gene Hackman / Dianne West film, The Bird Cage.
Nashville theatre group, Circle Players, has brought the show back to Nashville for a brief run (January 17 – February 2, 2020) at the Looby Theater. I say brought back because Circle Players staged the show 20 years ago in their 50th Anniversary season. The 2020 show, part of the 70th season, is directed by Jeffrey Ellis, who helmed the show last time as well, with musical director Nate Paul and choreography by Kelvin Amburgey. It captures the spirit of La Cage remarkably on a small stage and limited props, highlighting a musically talented cast who actively embrace the rainbow spirit of the this most LGBTQ of shows.
This is perhaps the most striking thing about La Cage 2020: it is unfortunately still too timely. The show centers on club owner Georges and his partner, and the club’s top performer, Albin/Zaza. The establishment, La Cage aux Folles is a drag club in the French Riviera in the 1970s, a time when such clubs were under attack by right-wing religious politics. As luck would have it, Georges and Albin’s son, Jean-Michel, falls in love with Anne, and invites her parents to meet his parents, excluding “step-father” Albin. Anne’s father, Eduoard Dindon, is also one of the highest ranking of those right-wing politicians! Antics ensue. Lessons are learned.
Forty-seven years later, rightwing religious politicians are attacking LGBTQ rights and representation in Tennessee. Adoption discrimination has just been signed into law by our very own Governor Dindon. And La Cage has returned to offer the hope that face-to-face encounters between the most different of people can lead to fundamental transformations in circumstances (as Mr. Dindon’s positions becomes untenable) and hearts (as Mrs. Dindon is converted). My biggest qualm about the production is this point. The last few years in Tennessee have made it almost impossible for me to believe that face-to-face encounters with real LGBTQ people, even LGBTQ relatives, is enough to change a Dindon.
The cast and crew executed the show very well. Macon Kimbrough (Georges) was a standout for me—he absolutely sold his character, with charm and a lovely, real voice. Michael Baird’s (Albin/Zaza) performance often made me think of Nathan Lane, and that’s a great thing. Russell Forbes (Jacob) provides fabulous standout comedy.
Callum Ammons’ Jean-Michel resembles nothing more to me than the Ryder-Waite Tarot’s ‘The Fool’—which fits the character, whom he plays with distinction. My only qualm about Ammons: the other leads sing beautifully but with such … ‘realness’, while Ammons’ voice is truly stellar but verges on the operatic at times. There are moments when he sings and I feel like I’ve fallen our of La Cage into Les Miserables.
Even after 47 years, La Cage's story could be ripped from the headlines. And that doesn’t square well with the show's story of hope. If the kind of growth the story culminates with is possible, if we are to take away hope in this, why are we still looking to state and federal legislatures full of Dindons, or ‘dingongs’? Sure, it happens to individuals that being forced into connection with an LGBTQ person, a change for the better is made. It’s a hopeful story, but to a cynic like me, it’s a pipedream on the macro level.
But by all means, go see the show. La Cage is fun, though if you’re familiar you know the first act is slower than the second. Hang on, it’s about to get sticky. The cast is stellar. You’ll have a gay old time.