david lopez & chris zonneville
When I was doing my Masters Degree at the University of Toronto one of the projects that I worked on dealt with the question, “what happens in the mind of the actor when they transition from speaking to singing in musical theatre?” Essentially, I spent months researching how performers justify a seemingly “unnatural” character choice within this genre. We spoke to a lot of voice teachers, coaches and musical directors and many said the same thing to us, that it was often easier for singers to express profound emotion through song than in dialogue. Neptune Theatre’s production of La Cage Aux Folles, which plays at Fountain Hall until May 27th, 2012, is a strong reflection of this argument.
In fact, this production of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 Tony Award winning musical is disjointed into two very distinct pieces: the musical scenes with songs and dancing and the play scenes without them. The musical is set in and around a nightclub that features drag performers in luxurious costumes (by fabulous Crystal MacDonnell) dancing in a way that is both gaudy and seductive, while keeping an air of regal sophistication. Les Cagelles, the six ensemble drag performers at the club are played by Devin Herbert, Zak Kearns, Erik Markewich, Chad McNamara, Andrew Taylor and Joel Taylor and they are uniformly excellent. Taut with attitude, they attack Mike Jackson’s choreography with allure and exalting precision. They each have the ability to keep their characters as individuals while still working together as a magnetic singular force of movement and skill. Similarly, the flamboyant maid in and around the club, Jacob, played brilliantly by David Lopez, is a shining force of hilarity and spirit woven throughout the show. You won’t want him to leave the stage.
The story centers on the lead drag performer, onstage known as Za-Za, who offstage, as Albin, is confronted with the shame and fear of his son, Jean-Michel, who doesn’t want to introduce his fiancé’s conservative moralist parents to his two dads. Albin’s partner, Georges, the owner of the nightclub, agrees to pretend to be straight for their son’s sake and farcical chaos ensues. When Steven Gallagher (Albin), Ian Simpson (Georges) and Chris Zonneville (Jean-Michel) sing to one another there is some tenderness and a sense of connection between them, but Simpson and Zonneville have difficulties carrying these emotions over to their dialogue. When they are not singing both become significantly more wooden and hollow, their characters lose any depth of personality or uniqueness they had when they were singing and all the chemistry and real rooted sense of family rests on the shoulders of Steven Gallagher’s Albin to maintain and perpetuate.
In a story with such a profound political message that relies on Georges, Albin and Jean-Michel and their familial bond of love to resonate strongly with the audience, it is tragic to see this aspect of the show fall so flat. The show is also supposed to be a farce, which is complicated by Simpson’s and Zonneville’s lack of comic timing, although the farcical elements of all the performers are magnificent in song during “Dishes (Cocktail Counterpoint).” Martha Irving and William Vickers play the Conservative parents and from the moment they enter the fray, the energy onstage immediately catapults into farce mode and their reactions to the action throughout the second act are some of the funniest moments in the show.
Steven Gallagher gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Albin and he makes this show worth seeking out despite its flaws. He is filled with charm, with warmth and roots his character not in an empty stereotype, but in these relationships as wife, as husband and as father struggling to be accepted as the person who he is inside. There is a line where Albin says to Jean-Michel, “I’m dressed appropriately, aren’t I?” seemingly benign words that in Gallagher’s clutches are the most emotionally ravaging in the show. His singing voice is warm, powerful and easy to fall into, his physical comedy in “Masculinity” is terrific and his rendition of Herman’s trademark song “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act I will likely make you wish you could rewind and watch it over and over again.
George Pothitos’ direction in the bits without music is sluggish, aimless and filled with superfluous hand gestures. Happily, Jackson’s choreography, Herman’s music and the talents of Les Cagelles, Lopez, Gallagher, Irving and Vickers usually pull the production out of the stale clutches of stagnation. Yet, in all, the result is a show that hasn’t yet settled into consistency, although the parts that are good, are really terrifically fun.*
Hopefully throughout the rest of the show’s long run, all the performers will have the opportunity to settle deeper into their characters and into the emotions that they are able to evoke so beautifully when they’re singing.
* This review was written after a preview performance before Opening Night
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