Center Stage’s delightfully flamboyant — and unsentimentally moving — production of La Cage Aux Folles is shaking the rafters at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (through July 25). Gorgeous costumes, rambunctious production numbers, and a heartfelt story about a drag queen who ends up triumphant. The tern shouldn’t be “drag,” it should be “fun.”
When a counterculture finally seems nonthreatening enough to be exploited commercially, what is brought to the fore is usually trivial and sensational. Witness the success of Hair because of the nudity. With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the book of La Cage was written by Harvey Fierstein, the gay civil rights soldier whose Torch Song Trilogy plumbed the depths of drag queen angst. So the 1983 musical, based on Jean Poiret’s play of the same name from 10 years before, hits both prideful and poignant notes of the gay emergence of the time.
Directed, choreographed, and staged by Russell M. Maitland, this production certainly captures the energy and the charm of the musical. And Eric Pereira as Albin, the drag queen at the center of things, provides a bravura performance.
The story is a mistaken identity farce, heavy on the mascara. Meet Georges (Douglas Hummel-Price), who manages a nightclub in St. Tropez, on the French Riviera. Star of the nightly shows is Zaza, performed with sequined ease by Albin, his low-key lover, who off-stage would lose a self-confidence contest with a rabbit.
They have a 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel (Billy Hart), the product of Georges’s one-night stand with a show girl back in his experimental days. Jean-Michel is in love with Anne (Gianna Mia Izzo) and they want to marry. Unfortunately, her father is Edouard Dindon (Rick Bagley), the stuffy head of the Tradition, Family, and Morality Party, to which homosexuality is anathema. What would he think of Albin, not to mention their butler Jacob (Travis Greene), who wants to be called Claudine and who usually wears more feathers than his duster has. Hmmm . . . how to trick Monsieur Dindon into thinking that the family his daughter wants to marry into is straight and respectable?
Georges’s first thought is to contact Jean-Michel’s frivolous birth mother, who has never cared for him, in either sense, and have her play doting parent and wife for an evening. His second thought is the panicked understanding that Albin and his effeminate, borderline hysterical ways must not be part of the family scene. Of course, Albin is insulted and distraught, and he plays up both responses with the hanky-at-eye overacting that his stage persona has trained him for.
Pereira is terrific as Albin. Not only is he a smart enough actor to play the occasional nervous upsets as real rather than funny, but he further establishes a flesh-and-blood character rather than a stereo-type. As a bonus, his singing voice is beautiful. There are several songs whose lyrics reveal him as a fully dimensional person, such as “A Little More Mascara” and, centrally, “I Am What I Am” (“So come take a look/Give me the hook or the ovation”).
There are many high points in this production. The graceful balletic dancing by Izzo as girlfriend Anne. The exhausting-to-watch acrobatics in the title song production number. The touching love song “On the Sand,” with Hummel-Price in fine voice. And the most heartening song of all, “The Best of Times,” led by Pereira as the ensemble — and much of the audience — joins in to affirm life.