BY SANDY STAGGS
Asheville Community Theatre is breaking legs, heels and taboos on the mountain. There’s likely not a single community theatre in the area that has the artistic audacity to tuck and roll with the musical punches in a mainstage production of the classic drag queen farce “La Cage Aux Folles.”
And director Jerry Crouch, who helmed ACT’s big-budget sensation “Young Frankenstein” last October, has crafted a entertaining showcase of stellar acting, heartfelt musical numbers and a glitzy, visually-stunning array of sequins, gold and silver lame, feathers, wigs and buckets of make-up to cover those pesky beard stubbles.
With a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, “La Cage Aux Folles” may be more familiar to local theatre audiences from the American film version set in South Beach, “The Birdcage” (with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman), which was based on the same source material, Jean Poiret’s 1973 French play set on the French Riviera.
“La Cage Aux Folles” was quite ground-breaking when it opened on Broadway in 1983 at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. And this show holds the record as the first musical to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice, as well as the coveted big prize for its original 1988 production.
The comedy is set in motion when young Jean-Michel (the handsome talented Maximilian Koger) announces his engagement to Anne Dindon (Bradey Walter), the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician who heads the French equivalent to the Tea Party, the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party.” In order to make a good impression with his future in-laws, Jean-Michel convinces his father Georges (Coy Theobalt) to partake in a scheme that involves temporarily censoring their “gay” apartment, and renouncing his gay lifestyle and the St. Tropez drag club he owns with his longtime partner Albin (Bradshaw Call), who has been a surrogate mother to Jean-Michel all of his life.
To Albin’s chagrin, Jean-Michel opts instead to invite his birth mother Sybil, who has never been in the familial picture.
Call is stupendous as Albin (and the club’s top-billing performer Zaza), a part he says he has waited for 20 years to play. His Albin is part-Bette Davis, part-Elizabeth Taylor and part-Norma Desmond, and when he tries to be masculine, a little Truman Capote. Call seduces us with empathy, drama and impeccable timing and is an enthralling entertainer, whether solo or with the club’s resident troupe of boisterous drag queens, the Cagelles (Jacob Walas, Marcos Cunha, Lupe Perez, Zacary Landolt, Zachary Eden and Fleming Lomax).
And Call is never so flamboyantly delectable than in the show’s most popular song “I Am What I Am,” which became the gay anthem when it went mainstream with recordings by disco diva Gloria Gaynor and even UK chanteuse Shirley Bassey. Though Cindi Lauper’s “True Colors” seems to have assumed that title for the movement for at least a decade now.
Theobalt is pitch perfect as the romantic, the voice of sanity and “straight” man to Albin in “Song on the Sand” and “With You On My Arm.” Koger simply dazzles with his rendition of “With Anne on My Arm” and as the butler (or maid) Jacob, Tim Geib is a breath of flaming air in his drag debut and has a “Z” snap and sassy quip for every occasion.
James Curley and Carla Pridgen are standouts as the unsuspecting in-laws, as well as local Asheville aerial artists Alan Malpass (known around town as The Kilt Man) and Lacey Winter, who defy gravity on the side stage lyras.
Stuart Littleton is music director and conductor of the live band that plays the grand old-fashioned jazz and cabaret score. And Derrick Everhart and Nana Hosmer Griffin shore up the divine vocals from the orchestra pit.
All of drama and musical numbers transpire on Jill Summers’s Rubik’s cube of a set that folds and spins effortlessly on itself to reveal a pink-marble stage, a luxurious apartment, restaurants and a regal seaside Promenade Boardwalk.
The exquisite original costumes by Ida (with Carina Lopez) are colorful and elaborately-coordinated and employ every fabric and wardrobe wonder at her disposal. I especially adored the tilted mini-hats inspired by Ongina (from RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame) and would suspect there is currently a sequin shortage at Asheville fabric and craft stores.
While “La Cage” is not a flawless production (the ensemble was a little out of sync at times), it is darn near perfection. Crouch’s direction is tasteful, sophisticated and rarely goes below the belt for gags, instead relying on Feinstein’s acerbic wit, and the indelible love and commitment to family that is the crux of this hilarious story.
Kudos to ACT for this historic, progressive stroke of programming as the company nears the conclusion of its 70th anniversary season ending in August with Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern Gothic drama “Crimes of the Heart.” And congratulation to Mr. Crouch and his partner Rick who just celebrated 26 years of bliss.
Although most Southern communities don’t celebrate until September/October, “La Cage Aux Folles,” arrives just in time for National LGBT Pride Month and is also co-sponsored by O.Henry’s in Asheville, the longest-running gay bar in North Carolina.
In conjunction with Pride Month, ACT is also partnering with Equality NC for a benefit to repeal the infamous controversial bathroom law HB2 with comedian Jim David in “Stand Up for Equality (and Show Tunes!) on June 23 at 7:30 p.m.
“La Cage Aux Folles” continues through June 26, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 East Walnut Street in Asheville. For ticket info, visit http://ashevilletheatre.org.