The Barn Players in Mission, Kan. have taken on the ambitious task of producing “La Cage Aux Folles” this fall. In the world of musicals, there are shows that can be made on shoestring budgets and imagination, and then there are productions that require much more of the spectacular — think “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Miss Saigon.” But instead of landing a helicopter onto the stage, “La Cage” drops a 10-ton bag of comedy, social commentary, family conflict and enough sequins, feathers and glitter to make the gals at Missie B’s envious.
“La Cage Aux Folles,” which premiered on Broadway in 1983, was based on Jean Poiret’s play by the same name and went on to inspire the 1996 film, “The Birdcage.” From a production standpoint, “La Cage” requires many difficult elements and for a community theatre these elements can seem insurmountable. The most obvious difficulty lies in the casting, as “La Cage” requires a throng of singing, dancing drag queens as its chorus.
The show presents structural adversity. It opens with the chorus whisper-singing “We Are What We Are” from behind a sheer curtain in a hotbox proscenium. The effect, which should hinge on the fabulous illusion of men adorned as girls, instead creates a sense of unease throughout the audience as the “Cagelles” range from enviable beauty to awkward and scary. Instead of building intensity and an invitation to suspend all disbelief, the effect comes off as low-energy, which is death to musicals and drag shows alike. Thankfully the opening is emceed by Eric Magnus, who plays Georges with dynamic, spirited glow.
We then meet Albin/Zaza, played by Dudley Hogue. In spite of his whiny, single-note performance in the first-act dialogue, he sings with heartache and splendor in the powerful ballad interpretation of the opening song, “I Am What I Am.” Magnus and Hogue play perfectly off each other, creating a love so sweet, it’s capable of making even the most cynical audience member tear up.
On whole, the cast creates unique portrayals of each role, constructing their characters from the tricky harmony of silliness and emotional sincerity. The vocals are meticulously balanced by the musical direction of Martha Risser. Standout performances came from Graham Fairleigh, who played the meddlesome and clumsy maid Jacob, and from Joy Richardson, who played Marie Dindon with energy and immaculate soprano vocals. The production’s costume designer, Julia Ras, deserves special recognition for extensively wardrobing the cast in gown after gown, wig after wig. If you see the show from the first few rows, you’ll be in a splash zone of feathers and glitter.
“La Cage Aux Folles” runs –through Nov. 23. Tickets can be purchased online at http://barnlacage.brownpapertickets.com