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Theater | REVIEW

It's always a good time at 'La Cage'

Musical Theatre West's revival of the transvestite romp offers two breakout leads.

November 07, 2003|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

One could, as ever, find fault with "La Cage aux Folles," which opens Musical Theatre West's 51st season. But why bother? This joyous revival of Jerry Herman's 1983 Tony-winning transvestite toe-tapper is a triumph of sentimental showmanship.

Adapted from the blockbuster 1978 film (remade in 1996 as "The Birdcage"), "La Cage's" premise concerns life partners Georges (Norman Large), owner of the titular St. Tropez nightclub, and Albin (David Engel), its temperamental headliner. Together, these happy campers have raised Jean-Michel, the product of Georges' collision with a showgirl. Jean-Michel, engaged to a homophobic politician's daughter, invites her parents to dinner, banning Albin. Pansexual pandemonium transpires.

The proficient ensemble boasts two revelatory stars. Ovation winner and "Forever Plaid" fixture Engel, who originated "La Cage's" whip-wielding Hanna from Hamburg, has become a prodigious triple threat. His fluttering Albin, who conjoins Juliet Prowse and Charles Busch as alter ego ZaZa, invests his Act 1 manifesto with hair-raising conviction in a benchmark performance.

Georges isn't as splashy, but that doesn't faze Large. His attunement to Engel sends things skyward at "With You on My Arm," and his glorious baritone imbues the ballads with infinite feeling. The muscle behind next year's Broadway revisit should be apprised of this memorable teaming.

Supporting notables include David Burnham's Jean-Michel, who outstrips his pasteboard role; Ralph Cole Jr.'s uproarious "maid"; Kathryn Skatula's bistro doyenne; and all 10 tireless "Cagelles."

The reviewed Sunday matinee performance found director Nick DeGruccio and choreographer Lee Martino sleekly countering slender content, barring a marathon title number short on accelerating oomph. Overall, though, the AquaNet effect of Gary Wissmann's sets, Todd Proto's costumes, Michael Gilliam's lighting and Anthony Gagliardi's wigs is hallucinatory.

Herman's surefire score retains its trumps, and musical director Michael Borth elicits lush sounds. Another asset is the inadvertent topicality that Harvey Fierstein's uninspired, formulaic libretto acquires in today's political climate. "La Cage" won't convert Sondheim supplicants or Falwell followers, but this heartfelt confection creates the best of times for audiences.

*

'La Cage aux Folles'

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m., except Nov. 9, 2 and 7 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 16

Price: $35-$47

Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

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