A fabulously liberated gay couple who run a successful queer nightclub are forced to play it straight to pull one over on the buttoned-up parents of their son’s fiancée – whose father, an ultra-conservative politician, is dead-set on obliterating their very way of life. A hilarious farce (and a beautifully humanising representation of queer family dynamics) ensues.
It’s a plot that broke barriers for gay representation when La Cage aux Folles (tip: the ‘s’ is silent) opened on Broadway in 1983, becoming the first hit Broadway musical centered on a homosexual relationship. This musical still carries an outsized political weight in 2023 – especially on the Sydney stage after the dust (and glitter) of Sydney WorldPride has had more than a month to settle.
Capsis is perfectly cast, lending his inimitable cabaret chops and out-of-this-world, gender-defying charisma
Based on the 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, this musical went on to inspire the 1978 French film of the same name, and the 1996 American movie The Birdcage (starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane). The show boasts infectious melodies by Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame) and a hysterical book by Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Torch Song Trilogy).
If the timeliness and Broadway calibre of this show isn’t motivation enough to get your bottom making a bee-line for the velvet chairs of the stately State Theatre, then we have two words for you: Paul Capsis. More precisely, national treasure Paul Capsis in full drag, performing ‘I Am What I Am’ in the very musical the timeless gay anthem was originally penned for. As Albin (one half of the central couple, and also their club’s star attraction), Capsis is perfectly cast, lending his inimitable cabaret chops and out-of-this-world, gender-defying charisma to the larger-than-life character.
Despite the parading chorus of drag queens (featuring a stern but feisty dominatrix) and the political potential of the work, La Cage has a rather light touch. There’s no doubt that this gentleness and the show’s rather classic farcical plot led to its widespread popularity (also making it the perfect show to delight your well-meaning but out-of-touch nan nowadays). However, when Capsis belts out the words “I am what I am / And what I am needs no excuses” during that famous Act One finale, this production reaches an unmatchable, goosebump-inducing moment of emotional poignancy. For a moment, this bright spark shatters the show’s lightness.
Internationally renowned singer and actor Michael Cormick holds his own as Georges, the comparatively-masculine husband to Albin and father to Jean-Michel (Noah Mullins), smoothly carrying the show’s transitions between the stage of La Cage aux Folles (the nightclub) and the goings-on behind-the-scenes.
Overall, this all-new Australian staging from Showtune Productions with direction by Riley Spadaro (The Italians, This Bitter Earth) has a charmingly camp air to it. Many of the characters are imbued with a cartoonishness that’s a delight to behold – from Capsis' limp-wristed flourishes; to Chloe Malek’s ballet-like twirls as Jean-Michel’s fiancée Anne; Anthony Brandon Wong’s comedic interjections as Jacob the butler; and Lucia Mastrantone doing double-time in two bawdy, over-the-top roles: restaurant owner Jacqueline and gruff club employee Francis.
Meanwhile, the dance routines performed by the cross-dressing chorus steal the show at various points – featuring feather fans, ruffled can-can skirts, cartwheels, and sparkly colour blocking. For a Sydney audience, these routines hold a nostalgic resemblance to the legendary Les Girls troupe of Kings Cross, and the Emerald City’s own legacy of drag production shows. Lending this show an extra note of Sydney significance, ‘I Am What I Am’ (and this is the last time I’ll harp on about this song, I promise) is also regularly performed by the city’s leading drag queens during the famous midnight show at the official Sydney Mardi Gras after party.
There is no shortage of passion, ambition and talent poured into this production. It’s a pity that this revival only returns to the stage for one week, because it deserves to be seen more. It would be a fine thing to see it brought back with a bigger budget (even a fraction of the allowance for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or Moulin Rouge! The Musical) (and with all the quirks of the theatre’s audio fit-out sorted out).
As they say at La Cage, where they live life on an angle, “It's rather gaudy but it's also rather grand.”
La Cage aux Folles runs from April 19-23, 2023. Tickets start at $49.95 and you can snap them up over here.