La Cage Aux Folles in Skokie is a must-see

Photo by Brett Beiner

At its core, La Cage Aux Folles is a screwball comedy, but it is also a heartfelt love story with a deep helping of social commentary. The current production from Music Theatre Works, playing at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, makes the most of all of these core elements.

Starring Ginger Minj from RuPaul’s Drag Race as Albin, the central drag queen who performs under the stage name Zaza, the show (written by Harvey Fierstein with music from Jerry Herman) pulls no punches as it immerses you in the never-less-than-fascinating world of the titular club and its denizens, played by a wonderfully entertaining troupe of performers. Starting with the befeathered and caged dancer in the theatre’s lobby as you walk in (the French title translates to “The Cage of Crazy Women,” though “folles” is also a slang term for homosexuals), director Kyle A. Kougan takes you into the heart of the St. Tropez in the 1970s.

The club is run by Georges (Jason Richards), Albin’s common-law husband—at least if gay marriage had been legal back then—and soulmate. Their relationship, three decades old, becomes threatened (in a comic, non-threatening way) when Georges’ son Jean-Michel (Christopher Ratliff), who was conceived during a brief and ill-advised dalliance with a seriously flighty woman, comes home to announce his engagement. Both of his parents—he considers Albin to be a “mother”—are thrilled, of course…until he reveals that his fiancée is the daughter of a notoriously anti-gay politician (Thomas E. Squires), and that neither the girl (Heather Banks, who gets to show off some lovely dance moves in her brief scenes) nor her parents are aware of the truth of Jean-Michel’s parentage.

This is the source of the screwball shenanigans, as Georges and Jean-Michel try to make their lives appear mundane for the in-laws’ visit…which involves making the flamboyantly gay Albin disappear to the sidelines, a plan that is just doomed to failure. As they remove the porn-themed household decorations (replacing them with an extremely unlikely collection of crucifixes), father and son plot to get Jean-Michel’s biological mother to show up for the night. But, of course, the woman is not to be trusted, and at the last second Albin decides to stand in for her when she fails to show up.

It’s a very silly and fun set-up, to be sure, although somewhat tempered by all of the anti-LGBTQ politics going on in this country right now. (Dougan, through Richards near the end, finally acknowledges the elephant in the room by shouting down the “Texas governor.”) While Dougan is bringing out the comedy, Music director Kyra Leigh brings out lovely voices—both high and low—in this mostly-male ensemble that looks mostly female, accompanied by Linda Madonia’s offstage seven-piece orchestra, and choreographer Christopher Carter has lots of fun with the drag club dancing. Costumer Justin LeBlanc, makeup designer David Ian Grant, and wig artist Alexis Bevels also have a field day on this one to bring out the woman within these performers, and they are aided by some beautiful lighting (including one black-light scene) by Andrew Meyers. And all of this takes place on a lovely and simple set designed by Scott Davis. (This is the kind of production that practically compels me to call out each of the main designers, and I’d be remiss not to mention sound designer Eric Backus and very creative props designer Hayley E. Wallenfeldt.)

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the actors to sell the show. I’ve never seen RuPaul’s Drag Race, so I did not know anything about Ginger Minj coming in, but her performance almost makes me forget that of Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage,” the film based on this same material. (Honey West, playing a smaller role here, is Minj’s understudy.) If Richards, also excellent, didn’t make me likewise forget Robin Williams as Georges, I can’t hold that against him. I mean, really, who could make anyone forget Robin Williams? Equally fun (and funny) is Dane Strange as Jacob, Albin’s “maid,” a brightly dressed queen who dreams of a spot in the show playing at La Cage downstairs. The entire cast is outstanding, especially “Les Cagelles,” the six-member troupe who sing and dance in the drag show’s big numbers. Every one of them is wonderful. The whole play is wonderful.

Please forgive me if I take another moment to re-acknowledge LeBlanc, Grant, and Bevels: without the stellar work they did on the drag transformations, none of this could possibly have worked. I suppose that could be said for everyone involved in this memorable, hilarious, wonderful (did I say that already?) production. See it before it ends on April 3. Tickets are available at Music Theatre Works.

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