From the very opening number, this show is set to wow. The rousing music, the intricate set and the unspeakably extravagant costumes all work in unison to transform the audience in Leeds into the audience at the infamous ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ nightclub, St Tropez.
Far from sniping drag queens presenting a harsh sense of femininity, this show celebrates the best in song, dance, ballet and cabaret. The company, or ‘Les Cagelles’, certainly don’t let their triumphantly flamboyant costumes upstage them, as they high-kick to perfection. The interludes from ‘Les Cagelles’ were eagerly awaited and exhaustingly energetic.
But all that glitz and glamour is really the ‘show-within-the-show’ that punctuates the leading plot line. Upstairs, above ‘La Cage’ club, Georges and Albin struggle as their newly engaged son, Jean-Michele, fights to impress the stringently conservative in-laws. As can be expected, slapstick comedy rules as this unconventional family pretend to be “perfect”. Therein the show balances emotional family drama and flamboyant cabaret, with comedy and poise.
John Partridge steals the show as Albin (or, as his sassy alter-ego, Zaza.) His over-the-top performance defines the atmosphere of the production as a whole: delighting in physical and vocal comedy, but reigned in aptly before it becomes totally pantomimic. As a northern diva, Partridge’s harsh voice mocks his glamorous attire, compounding cutting sarcasm with his physical elegance. He builds a rapport with the audience during his stand-up comedy routine as Zaza, as it is infectious to see an actor clearly enjoying himself. Yet, for me, it is the smaller touches that champion the comic performance: flippant fricatives instead of actually speaking French (a la ‘Joey’ from Friends) and the slapstick sequence of learning how to embody masculinity (a la John Wayne) that whips the crowd into frenzied laughter. Needless to say, Partridge’s belting voice also does justice to his big show numbers, particularly the moving I Am What I Am to close the first act.
His partner Georges, played by Adrian Zmed, fulfils a very different role. Tasked with many of the slower, less showy songs in the production, Zmed gives a heartfelt and honest performance. With a few charming punchlines of his own, Zmed, for the most part, humbly functions as a contrast to further enhance Zaza’s flamboyance.
Unfortunately, whilst the show’s dual plots overlap seamlessly, there is a sense of two different shows being performed within the lead couple: Partridge enacts outrageous (and very British) comedy, while Zmed embodies old-time Broadway. They are supposed to be the yin to each other’s yang, but, at times, their relationship (along with the wide-ranging accents within the company as a whole) lacks a little cohesion. But, I confess, my concerns were allayed within the closing moments of the show, when the couple’s chemistry ends on a convincing, warming high note.
La Cage Aux Folles boasts a wonderful sense of inclusivity and diversity. Marti Webb, as Jacqueline, surprises and delights the audience as she upstages one of Albin’s high notes. Dougie Carter, as Jean-Michele, is a wholesome, lovesick musical hero. Samson Ajewole, who plays the obscenely camp maid, Jacob, gives his all to strutting around with a distinctly modern definition of sass. Ajewole’s is a ‘love him or hate him’ performance, but his boundless enthusiasm for creating his caricature can’t be denied. Even the “villain” of the piece, played by Paul F Monaghan, indulges in self-parody, becoming part of the all-singing, all-dancing family by the end.
Brimming with self-conscious theatricality, La Cage Aux Folles gives its cast licence to be playful and to enjoy themselves, which inevitably reflects onto the audience’s reaction. For colourful comedy, unrivalled high-kicks and some unexpectedly heart-warming family drama, La Cage Aux Folles certainly deserved its standing ovation. Everything comes together to provide impeccable production value so as the audience leave singing, embracing and, perhaps even, redefining “normal”.
Catch La Cage Aux Folles at the Leeds Grand Theatre from 21st-25th March, as part of a national tour.