Orange County stages, especially those in dinner theaters, don't usually feature drag queens proudly parading in their false eyelashes and falsies. Sorry, "South Pacific's" coconut-chested Luther Billis doesn't count.
That fact alone makes the Grand Dinner Theatre's production of the Tony-winning "La Cage aux Folles" something exceptional. The theater's owners have taken a fairly adventurous step in trying to attract the tourists, birthday celebrators and other dinner theater traditionalists with a bawdy musical about homosexual lovers and their screamy friends.
What works across from Times Square might not work across from Disneyland. But regardless of how people feel about the subject matter--although the audience at a performance this week was very enthusiastic--the Grand's Robert Turoff-directed "La Cage" works nicely.
Turoff offers a reasonably undiluted version of Harvey Fierstein's and Jerry Herman's brazen-bodied, sweet-souled show that benefits greatly from a witty performance by George McDaniel as Albin, the musical's sashaying focal point.
Based on a series of French cabaret skits by Jean Poiret and also made into a 1978 movie, "La Cage" takes us, with unsparing sentiment but also good fun, into the lives of Georges (Bill Hayes), the proprietor of a famous transvestite nightclub on the Riviera, and Albin, his longtime mate and revue star. This is a devoted couple; it doesn't take a big brain to get the play's message that love comes in all forms and that tolerance is the key to understanding people.
Into their bliss comes the pompous threat of Edouard Dindon (Don Forney), a French politician on a moral witch hunt--he wants to close all the drag shows in town. Georges' son, Jean-Michel (Stephen Mathews) wants to marry Dindon's daughter (De Anne Spicer), and Dindon wants to meet Jean-Michel's "family."
But what to do about Albin? And what to do about Georges' and Albin's garish apartment? Albin practices a John Wayne swagger, and their plaster replica of "David," along with the life-size phallus lighter and other meaningful artifacts, are replaced with a giant crucifix. With this scenario, there is bound to be trouble.
"La Cage" matches the farce in the living room with farce on-stage as the nightclub's eccentric revue is re-created. The ensemble of "Les Cagelles" moves spryly (and loudly) through Mark Knowles' athletically silly choreography, bringing some comfortably matched voices to "We Are What We Are," the show's signature. The obvious joke that these are men playing women does get overworked--how many times can they yank those wigs off?--but the performances are still ingratiating.
Much of the success of "La Cage" depends on the audience falling for Georges and Albin, blush and all, so Hayes and McDaniel must be disarming throughout. Hayes, with his heartland looks, may not be the most cosmopolitan Georges, but he does project a genuine love for Albin. McDaniel is charming from the start, but more important, he is completely comfortable in the role, which allows the character to surprise as much as amuse.
There aren't any dead spots in the support, either. As Jacob, the cheeky butler who would rather be the maid, Mark Nordike is a hoot. Forney and Elizabeth Mendoza as Dindon's wife, Tonia Bern-Campbell as a friend who helps Georges and Albin maneuver Dindon into a compromising position, and Spicer and Mathews all help this "La Cage" maintain its comic momentum.
'LA CAGE AUX FOLLES'
A Grand Dinner Theatre production of Harvey Fierstein's and Jerry Herman's musical. Directed by Robert Turoff. With Bill Hayes, George McDaniel, Roger Castellano, Dannette Drehsen, Scott Lane, Kevin Davis, Jeffrey Cornell, Tracy Lore, Garry Allyn, Chris Castillo, Gary John La Rosa, Mark Nordike, Stephen Mathews, De Anne Spicer, Tonia Bern-Campbell, Don Forney and Elizabeth Mendoza. Sets by Tim Glasby. Choreography by Mark Knowles. Lighting by Christopher Hardt. Costumes by Mela Hoyt-Heydon. Plays through July 17 at the Grand Hotel, 1 Hotel Way, Anaheim. Tickets: $23.50 to $32. (714) 772-7710.