“We are what we are and what we are is an illusion”.
I was in for a surprise when I finally caught up with the national tour of La Cage Aux Folles which is playing at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.
My last visit to the show was a 2009 West End production starring John Barrowman. Now John Partridge has stepped into the high heels and spangles in what can only be described as a camper and coarser show that has all the subtlety of a downmarket drag act.
Gone is the warm humour and finely written dialogue from Harvey Fierstein that cleverly attacked homophobia and bigotry with intelligence and finesse.
In its place are crude caricatures who poke fun at gay culture while humiliating and embarrassing the audience.
Director Martin Connor appears to have returned to the source material, Jean Poiret’s original outrageous farce, that was characterised by its outlandish characters, sex romps and slapstick.
He’s come up with a mainstream musical packed with generally unfunny gags that are laid on thicker than the cast’s panstick.
It’s such a shame because there are some genuinely moving moments (especially JP’s heartbreaking rendition of I Am What I Am which closes the first half in shocking style).
And the singing and dancing are extraordinary. Marti Webb, who only has a brief moment to strut her stuff, displays a powerhouse voice that has rightly made her a grande dame of West End musicals.
The entire cast, from stars Partridge, playing drag queen Albin, and Adrian Zmed as her partner, night-club owner George, right down to Paul F Monaghan’s homophobe, Dindon, excel themselves with Jerry Herman’s outstanding musical numbers.
And Les Cagelles – the dance troupe who perform at the Riviera’s top drag club, La Cage Aux Folles – are so spectacular that they deserve their own show.
The actual story doesn’t develop until the second act with the first 80 minutes concentrating on Partridge’s ability to quick-change costumes and wigs, and to grossly overact, flouncing around throwing hissy fits.
With a Northern accent worthy of Vera Duckworth – very out of place in St Tropez – Albin must make himself scarce when George’s son, from a fleeting and unique experience with a woman, announces he is marrying the daughter of a local bigwig who is intent on closing down all the gay hot spots.
Albin, who has raised the boy as his own, is understandably hurt at the betrayal and things go from bad to worse when the prospective in-laws arrive and Albin is attempting his best ‘straight’ impersonation.
The show’s music, dancing, costumes and set are dazzling. It’s just a shame that the story is ruined by heavy-handed direction – which includes Albin ridiculing some theatre-goers sitting at the front. You have been warned.
La Cage runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday and the tour finishes with a week at Theatre Royal, Brighton, next week.
Crude, camp and over-acted, La Cage Aux Folles, is saved by Jerry Herman’s outstanding musical numbers and Bill Deamer’s spectacular choreography.