‘I Am What I Am’ is one of those showtunes that I have seen performed numerous times. However, I have never seen the production that it originated from, until now! That’s right, I finally got the chance to see the famous production La Cage aux Folles!
With original music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Feinstein, La Cage aux Folles is the winner of 11 Tony Awards. It inspired many different productions and adaptations over the years, including Hollywood film ‘The Birdcage’, and it also celebrated its 40th Anniversary, just two days prior to opening night here in Melbourne. La Cage aux Folles returns to Melbourne at the hands of Australian producer David M. Hawkins. Having heard a lot about this musical, I was excited.
For those that have no idea what La Cage aux Folles is, it is a tale based on a 1973 French play of the same name. A gay couple duo as owner and star of the Saint-Tropez nightclub, Georges portrayed by Michael Cormick, is the dashing host and manager of the club alongside lover Albin portrayed by the five-time Helpmann Award winner Paul Capsis, complete with their cabaret persona, Zaza. If the struggles of owning and operating a nightclub were not enough to worry about, Georges’ son Jean-Michel (Noah Mullins) arrives with exciting news of his engagement to his lover Anne (Genevieve Kingsford). But it is not the engagement they have to worry about. It is Anne’s father, Edouard Dindon (Peter Phelps) and his right-wing political views that threaten the very existence of not only the Saint-Tropez nightclub, but Georges and Albin’s loving relationship.
Entering the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre, the stage was draped with a beautiful red velvet curtain. Before long, the show began and we were treated to a lovely overture before Georges entered the stage. Dressed in a stunning dark velvet suit, he welcomed us to the Saint-Tropez.
Right from the opening number of ‘We Are What We Are’, I was hooked. Singing and dancing around on the stage were the stunning Les Cagelles, the ensemble crew of the Saint-Tropez stage portrayed by Pedro Donoso, Nick Eynaud, Nick Jones, Ethan Ritchie, Trent Sinclair, Leigh Sleightholme and Max Walburn as Dermah, Chantal, Hanna, Bitelle, Angelique, Phaedra and Mercedes, respectively. Dressed in stunning gowns, the Les Cagelles not only stole the show with their incredible dancing and singing skills, but they were also very funny! I never thought I would be laughing so hard so early in the show, but here we were! Only one number in and I was already absolutely loving it.
Bev Killick appears as the nightclubs stage manager, Francis. Her dry humour is fantastic and there is a wonderful bit with a stage prop that left me in stitches. There is also Loredo Malcolm as the butler, sorry, housemaid, Jacob. Having only seen Malcolm in Rocky Horror, it was great to see him in another role so soon. His portrayal of Jacob is fun, playful and sassy, plus the abundance of outfits that his character wears are to die for and are oh so fabulous. We are then finally introduced to Paul Capsis’ Albin/Zaza, who received a resounding applause performing a fun little number with the Les Cagelles, ‘A Little More Mascara’.
One thing I noticed about this production was how minimal yet effective the stage and set design is. The band is cleverly placed at the rear of the stage, performing not only the important role of the score of the production but as the Saint-Tropez house band. When they were not needed as part of the staging, a sheer, glittery curtain was dropped to fade them into the background. Putting on a production with minimal staging is no easy feat but Grace Deacon has done a fantastic job with her simple, yet effective approach.
The costuming is utterly beautiful. The suits Michael Cormick gets to wear are stunning and so are the frocks that both Paul Capsis and the whole Les Cagelles cast show off in. Jozef Koda has made some excellent choices for this production. But of course, what is a fantastic drag outfit without an even more fantastic wig and makeup to complete the look? I’m positive Drew-Elizabeth Johnstone inspired some of the drag queens in the opening night audience with her wigs!
Noah Mullins as Jean-Michel, son to Georges and Albin is a character that I wanted to scold, yet one that I somewhat understood. He is deeply in love and doesn’t want to lose what he has found. Although, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the lifestyle his loving same-sex parents have chosen. Nobody should hide who they are, and it is this part of the character that Mullins portrays well. Genevieve Kingsford as Jean-Michel’s fiancé Anne is a somewhat small role but Kingsford’s presence was felt with her character’s whimsical nature and over the top paradoxical dancing in and out of scenes was great and quite hilarious.
Portraying Anne’s parents are Genevieve Morris as Marie Dindon and the aforementioned Peter Phelps as Edouard Dindon who are completely opposite characters. Phelps’ portrayal as the right-wing political tyrant Edouard couldn’t have been an easy one to pull off. Especially in theatre when the community is all about inclusivity and acceptance but Phelps pulled it off perfectly. Morris’ Marie is a free spirit that wants to be unleashed but is held back by the overpowering spouse. Both are wonderful in their respective roles.
The legendary Debra Byrne appears in the production as Jacqueline, a close ally and friend of Georges and Albin. With over 50 years of experience in the industry, it is no wonder she is an absolute natural on stage. Her portrayal of the clever, cunning, and almost scene stealing Jacqueline is flawless.
Michael Cormick’s Georges is fantastic. I adored his suave and sophisticated persona. Georges just wants to love everyone close to him, but sometimes it isn’t that easy. His portrayal of a man stuck between the love for his son and trying to do what is right for him, and the love of his life and trying to do what is right for them was brilliant. Not to mention Cormick’s vocals are utterly stunning!
And of course, there is the legendary Paul Capsis. I have no idea why I have never seen him on stage until now, having performed in so many shows I have seen, just never in the productions with him in it. It is evident why Capsis has won so many awards in their career, they are utterly flawless! Capsis’ Albin/Zaza is endearing, funny, loving, sassy and one you cannot help but fall in love with.
It broke my heart with what happened to Albin, but the redemption is well worth it. Not to mention Capsis’ performance of the one number I have actually heard before, ‘I Am What I Am’. It was so good; I was shocked there wasn’t a standing ovation at the end of the number. But the packed Playhouse Theatre made up for it with an ovation at curtain call. I hope this isn’t the last time I see Paul Capsis on stage because they are a force to be reckoned with.
La Cage aux Folles is a staple in musical theatre, and I am thankful that I finally got the chance to see it. It is fun, heartbreaking, endearing and camp all rolled into one neat little package. The costuming is brilliant, the music is catchy, the story (even after forty years) is still very relevant, and this David M. Hawkins production in association with Arts Centre Melbourne is simply fantastic. If you have not seen this show before, now is your chance! Don’t wait like I did!
La Cage aux Folles is now playing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre. At present, there are limited tickets available up until the 19th of November. So, grab your tickets and make your way to the Saint-Tropez!
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Photography by John McRae.