Arts & Culture

You’ll love ‘La Cage’ if you keep open mind

“La Cage aux Folles” is one of those plays with a lot of history. Written by Jerry Herman and Harvey Firestein, the main characters are a homosexual couple, played (sometimes) seriously rather than for laughs. It won the Tony for Best Musical in 1984 and its debut coincided with the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Yet the themes of the piece are still controversial today.

That history is almost impossible to forget when you view Manatee Players’ production of “La Cage,” directed by Larry Alexander with choreography by Dewayne Barrett and musical direction by Rick Bogner.

The plot centers around Georges (Ken Basque), the owner of a transvestite nightclub in St. Tropez, France, and his partner Albin (Rodd Dyer), who stars in the club as “Zaza.”

When Jean-Michel (David Scarpaci), Georges’ son from a previous heterosexual encounter, announces that not only is he getting married to a girl named Anna (Corrine Woodland), and she is the daughter of a notorious conservative politician (Randy Garner), but . . . guess who’s coming to dinner?

Jean-Michel asks his father to act “straight” when he meets his fiancee’s parents and also requests that the far-more flamboyant Albin remain out of sight.

The play becomes about being proud of whoever you are and the song “I Am What I Am” became a gay anthem.

Ken Basque plays Georges with an unusual coldness that serves to highlight the initial disconnect between Georges and Albin, but in doing so underplays the inherit humor in the role.

He chooses not to indulge in the traditional timing on many of the funniest lines, giving his Georges a heavy mood that only lifts at the end.

Rodd Dyer hits all the right emotional notes as Albin, from the beginning as a jealous, emotional wreck to a hurt, yet proud man at the end of the first act.

His scene in the second act where he attempts to act masculine was the funniest scene in the play. I only wish that he would more fully embrace the glamour and confidence of Zaza.

And then there are the notorious “Les Cagelles,” who clearly have the most fun in the cast. They are the dancers in the club, mostly men dressed in drag, but with some women thrown in for good measure. Originally, they are meant to be indistinguishable from the women, but in this case their numbers are mainly played for laughs and they get them. They are, at times, gaudy and glamorous. The performance of the title number is the highlight of the show

Brian James Dennis has quite a few funny moments as Jacob the Butler, or in this case, the Maid. Other notable performers are the always-solid Corrine Woodland as the open-minded Anna, Stephanie Costello as the brassy Jacqueline, Jason Kimble as the masochistic Francis, Denny Miller and Teri Lyons Duncan as the Renaud and David Scarpaci as Jean-Michel.

Marc Lalosh’s set design is compact and fluid, establishing many locales with very few objects, but it is Fred Werling’s costumes and wigs that are the real stars of the show.

The final tableau is particularly stunning.

As for the show itself, the second act was much stronger than the first. After a dour, rough start, the actors found the humor and the sense of play within the story.

As long as your mind is open, you will enjoy “La Cage.”