An actor in “La Cage Aux Folles” cross-dresses for the part

La Cage Aux Folles, book by Harvey Fierstein, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, based on the play by Jean Poiret; directed by Bert Bernardi; choreography by Matthew Couvillon, music direction by Joel Gelpe, scenic design by Darin Himmerich, costume and wig design by Jimmy Johansmeyer. At Cortland Repertory Theatre through July 8.

I saw Édouard Molinaro’s 1978 French farce La Cage Aux Folles at a particular point in high school when I was starting to see foreign films for the first time: new films like The Tin Drum and Excalibur and older titles like Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) and Roman Polanski flicks like Repulsion and Knife in the Water.

I remember seeing the film for the first time at Cornell Cinema, and I also recall that hip feeling of being in on some kind of cool tip. Like Tootsie (1982), the Molinaro film took drag humor and gender identity and made it funny, mainstream and very commercial: two sequels and Mike Nichol’s hilarious 1996 remake The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the roles played by Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault in the film. And speaking of remakes, La Cage Aux Folles was co-written by Francis Veber, whose entire filmography was optioned for an endless series of Americanized remakes, everything from The Toy (1982) to Dinner for Schmucks (2010).

The La Cage Aux Folles franchise also inspired a 1983 Triple-Tony award-winning musical by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly, Mame) that has been revived twice on Broadway and is now playing at CRT through July 8. 

Unlike The Birdcage, which transplanted the story to Florida, the musical — and CRT’s production — stays faithful to the film. The story focuses on a gay couple: Georges (Brian Runbeck), the manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin (Joel Briel), his romantic partner and star attraction “Zaza.”  The complications begin when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (Aaron Jacobs), brings home his fiancée’s ultra-conservative parents to meet them.

The musical gives Georges and Albin an alternative family of sorts with the ensemble of drag queens that support ZaZa, dubbed “Les Cagelles”: Angelique (Giovanni DaSilva), Monique (Caiti Marlowe), Phaedra (Brendan Henderson), Bitelle (Logan Mortier), Chantel (Grant Paylor), Hanna (Richard Nebel), Nicole (McKenna Silva) and Mercedes (Michael Dikegoros). The group introduces the show’s signature number, “We Are What We Are,” reclaimed by a defiant Zaza at the end of the first act, redefining the power of Herman’s lyrics and music. In a dizzying variety of get-ups and hairdos, Anthony Wright steals every scene he has playing Georges and Albin’s housekeeper Jacob.

CRT’s production, under the direction of Bert Bernardi, is as warm and fuzzy as its source material. Considering the show itself is 34 years old, it stands as a tribute to the durability of its premise that it always feels so fresh and contemporary. Runback is not the manic choreographer that Williams played (“You Fosse, Fosse, Fosse, Martha Graham, Martha Graham”) nor is he trying to be. His Georges is the ideal compere, but sweet and love-struck at his core, the essence of the doting husband. This leaves plenty of space for Joel Briel to act the temperamental diva who always needs to be coaxed out of her dressing room. (Once it’s clear that the prospective in-laws are coming, Briel’s acting ability will really be put to the test.)

The sound from Joel Gelpe’s eight-piece ensemble was fine and well-balanced, and as usual, CRT makes the most of its intimate space. Starting with a simple but elegant gilt-edged proscenium arch, cast members bring in and take out all flats, furniture and props to change the scene, and the costumes and wigs by Jimmy Johansmeyer merit mention as well. •

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