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La Cage Aux Folles at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It would have been really simple for retiring Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre Artistic Director Tim Sheader to do some nice easy, popular production for their final run but, no, they decided to end their stint with a classic musical that is not only much loved but contains one of the most iconic songs ever to be written and is also celebrating its 40th birthday. The show is La Cage Aux Folles, and I was lucky enough to be invited along to see if Tim was going out with a bang or a whimper.

Carl Mullaney (Albin) in La Cage aux Folles. Photo Johan Persson.
Carl Mullaney (Albin) in La Cage aux Folles. Photo Johan Persson.

La Cage Aux Folles is a drag cabaret nightclub on the coast of France. The club is owned by Georges (Billy Carter) who acts as MC and the star of the show is Zaza, the drag queen persona of Georges’ partner Albin (Carl Mullaney). The club is successful thanks to Albin, Hanna (Jak Allen-Anderson), Phaedra (George Lyneham), Chantel (Jordan Lee Davies) and the troupe of Cagelles (Tom Bales, Taylor Bradshaw, Lewis Easter, Harvey Ebbage, JP McCue, Rishard-Kyro Nelson, and Alexandra Waite-Roberts), all under the control (with a small ‘c’) of Stage Manager Francis (Hemi Yeroham). Georges and Albin lead a relatively peaceful life, performing and having dinner at the local restaurant run by their good friend Jacqueline (Debbie Kurup) while having their daily needs met by their butler/maid Jacob (Shakeel Kimotho). But then Georges’ twenty-four-year-old son Jean-Michel (Ben Culleton) comes home and tells his father that he plans to get married to Anne Dindon (Sophie Pourret). George is shocked, but this turns to horror when Jean-Michel tells him that Anne’s parents Edward (normally John Owen-Jones but played by Craig Armstrong at the performance I saw) and Marie (Julie Jupp) are ultra right-wing and would not approve of any aspect of Georges’ life. Jean-Michel then asks his father for a favour. One that could have repercussions for George, Albin, Jean-Michel, and everyone in and around La Cage Aux Folles.

Based on the original play of the same name by Jean Poiret with a book by Harvey Fierstein and score by Jerry Herman La Cage has been performed everywhere and pretty much won every award going in its forty years so this production had a lot to prove. So, let’s start by answering the question in the opening paragraph. Is Tim Sheader going out with a bang or a whimper? Well, Tim has delivered not just a bang, but a stiletto-wearing, sequin-encrusted nuclear explosion of a bang.

While this was the sixth time I’ve seen a version of La Cage Aux Folles, My companion Michael, who had never seen any version before, loudly declared that this was not only fantastic, but it was also his new favourite show this year. So, to almost quote Albin, where did we go right?

Let’s start with the opening number. As with many musicals, the opening has a huge job to do. Introducing the location, characters, motivations, and setting the general tone for the show whilst engaging and grabbing the audience. Think of ‘Tradition’ in Fiddler on the Roof and you’ll see what I mean. After Georges’ initial welcome, the music starts up and the Cagelles come on to perform ‘We Are What We Are’ and that was it, I was totally hooked and the grin on my face when the overture had started turned into Cheshire Cat proportions as I threw myself into the La Cage world.

I loved Colin Richmond’s set which gives the show a place almost anywhere in the world. Whilst set in Southern France there is much about the tattiness of the set – flaky plaster on the walls, odd lights out along the promenade, etc – that could emulate almost any slightly run-down and a bit seedy coastal town. My favourite part of the set was the ‘wings’ to the sides of the La Cage performance area. Delimited by a coloured outline on which the performers well, perform, while others watch in the wings. This is an effective trick making the audience a part of everything that is going on.

And talking of performers, what can I say? Not sure how long Billy Carter and Carl Mullaney have known each other but the chemistry between them is palpable. They are a quintessential couple that have been together for a long, long time. Georges, patient, and long suffering. Albin, emotional, and a complete diva when they need to be. Two opposites that not only attract but gel together as a perfectly formed couple. Of course, I can’t move on from G&A (as I’ll call them) without mentioning the truly iconic song ‘I Am What I Am’.

I could write for hours about this song, its various interpretations, and meanings, but I’m not going to. What I am going to say is that the way it was staged and Mullaney’s performance really elevated a fabulous piece of writing to the stratosphere and if there had been a roof above it, well it would have been blown off by the reaction of the audience at the end.

If this was the highlight of the show were there any lowlights? Nope, not one. The show is just fantastic from start to finish. All the performers were excellent. Aside from Georges and Albin, my absolute favourites were Jak Allen-Anderson’s absolutely terrifying Hanna, Shakeel Kimotho’s scene-stealing Jacob and Ben Culleton’s portrayal of Jean-Michel – a character whose story arc really makes you see them in different lights.

The costumes by Ryan Dawson Laight were excellent, along with Guy Common’s, and were just right for the location and time. In fact, as Albin appeared dressed and ready to end the midnight show, Michael and I looked at them and each other and said the same word “Stunning!” And Tim Sheader’s direction, was spot on with the differences I noticed between this production and others I had seen really working, and at times improving what I already considered to be a great show.

It would be really easy to dismiss La Cage Aux Folles as a bit of a fluffy gay musical, which in some ways it can be. But that would be to really underestimate the quality of the writing and storytelling. La Cage has a lot of levels to it. At its heart is the family and what we would do for our children, even if they don’t appreciate it. As you can guess both Michael and I absolutely loved it. Was there anything I would change? No, as we, like the rest of the audience leapt to our feet cheering and applauding at the end, I realised that this production is for me at least, the new standard against which all other productions of La Cage Aux Folles will be measured.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

“The best of times are now” with this glorious musical revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s show-stopping classic, La Cage aux Folles. Georges, Albin and their son Jean-Michel re-discover the true meaning of family, and of putting yourself last so that the ones you love can come first.

book by Harvey Fierstein
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret

Georges, Albin and their son Jean-Michel re-discover the true meaning of family, and of putting yourself last so that the ones you love can come first.

The cast includes Carl Mullaney (Albin) and Billy Carter (Georges). Further principal casting includes Ben Culleton (Jean-Michel), Julie Jupp (Marie Dindon), Shakeel Kimotho (Jacob), Debbie Kurup (Jacqueline), John Owen-Jones (Edward Dindon) and Sophie Pourret (Anne). Completing the cast are Jak Allen-Anderson (Hanna), Craig Armstrong (Cagelle), Tom Bales (Cagelle), Taylor Bradshaw (Cagelle), Daniele Coombe (Mme. Renaud), Jordan Lee Davies (Chantal), Nicole Deon (Ensemble), Lewis Easter (Cagelle/Swing/Dance Captain), Harvey Ebbage (Cagelle), Emma Johnson (Ensemble/Swing), George Lynham (Cagelle), JP McCue (Cagelle), Rishard-Kyro Nelson (Cagelle/Swing), Alexandra Waite-Roberts (Ensemble) and Hemi Yeroham (Francis).

Directed by Artistic Director Tim Sheader with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, La Cage aux Folles is based on the play by Jean Poiret, and includes the classic songs ‘I Am What I Am’ and ‘The Best of Times’.

Completing the creative team are: Thyrza Abrahams (Associate Director), Amy Ball (Casting Director), Arthur Carrington (Associate Casting Director), Guy Common (Make Up Designer), Ryan Dawson Laight (Costume Designer), James Hassett (Associate Sound Designer), Howard Hudson (Lighting Designer), Nick Lidster (Sound Designer), Ingrid Mackinnon (Season Associate – Intimacy Support), Stephen Mear (Choreographer), Ebony Molina (Associate Choreographer), Janis Price (Voice & Text Director), Colin Richmond (Set Designer), Tom Slade (Assistant Musical Director), Ben van Tienen (Musical Director) and Jennifer Whyte (Musical Supervisor).

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London
29 Jul 2023 – 16 Sep 2023
2 hours 30 minutes (incl. interval)

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