“La Cage aux Folles” is rather gaudy, but it’s also rather grand, as the lyrics to the title song proclaim. Never understated or quiet, this show wows audiences with bright colors, blinding amounts of glitter and an abundance of feather boas, all adding to create the atmosphere of a French drag nightclub. This 1984 Tony Award-winning musical plays at Out Front Theatre Company until Nov. 9 in a low-budget but enthusiastic production.
In the St. Tropez nightclub called La Cage aux Folles, Georges (Tony Hayes) is emcee and club owner while Albin (Clint Clark) is the star performer under the stage name Zaza. In the apartment above the nightclub, Georges and Albin become a bickering middle-aged couple, the romance fading from a decades-long relationship as the nightclub dominates their lives. However, this equilibrium is shattered when Jean-Michel (Aaron Schilling), the son of Georges and Albin, returns home engaged to Anne (Melanie Sheahan), the daughter of a fiercely conservative politician who supports outlawing all drag clubs. With Anne’s parents coming to meet her potential in-laws, Jean-Michel begs his parents to help him create the pretense of a straight family. With Albin’s natural flamboyance and a crew of Cagelles (an ensemble of drag queens) downstairs, this scheme proves no easy feat.
“La Cage aux Folles” delivers campy fun, with the plot never straying toward the heavy and somber topics that lace through most major LGBTQ+ musicals. The audience at Out Front Theatre Company was the most enthusiastic one I have ever seen in Atlanta, ready to holler whenever a singer finished belting out a note or a Cagelle kicked a heel overhead. Viewers even cheered and whooped before the show began when Out Front Theatre Company’s Founder and Producing Artistic Director Paul Conroy gave the pre-show announcements.
The cast members returned this excitement, shining in their group musical numbers. Some of Emory’s own talent feature in the show as well: Willis Hao (18Ox, 20C) makes his Out Front Theatre Company debut as Bitelle, a Cagelle in the ensemble. Jacob (Joe Arnotti), a supporting character who works as a maid for Albin and dreams of performing on the La Cage aux Folles’ stage is an unexpected scene stealer throughout the show. Arnotti’s hilarious and charmingly over-the-top physicality does leave the question: why would anyone be reluctant to put Jacob on a drag club stage?
The faults of this production may simply reflect budgeting constraints. The sound balance was off, with the orchestration sometimes overpowering the singers. When the performers encouraged the audience to clap the beat, the lyrics became indistinguishable. The fixed set of the show seems like a missed opportunity. The mural of a flamingo, the brightly colored cloth backdrops with painted hearts and a wide arc of bulbs conjure neither a nightclub nor France and look on par with a high school production. Moreover, the bright palettes, patterns and details of the fixed set leave the stage too visually busy with clashing color when the actors are on stage.
The costumes are also often loud and bright, but reflect the characters, time and place as the fixed set never does. Platform shoes and bell bottoms evoke the 1980s, while the eye-catching outfits the Cagelles don and George’s collection of boldly-patterned dinner jackets evoke a drag nightclub. Of course, the dazzling red sequin gown that Albin wears as Zaza in the iconic Act One finale, “I Am What I Am,” wonderfully matches the intensity of the number and featured in several patrons’ intermission conversations.
Out Front Theatre Company’s “La Cage aux Folles” is natural crowd-pleaser and impressed me with its energetic cast. The feel-good messages to be true to yourself and love each other help this show remain popular over three decades after its premiere. Out Front Theatre Company, only a few years old, is a nonprofit institution giving LGBTQ+ stories center stage and building community as a member of the Atlanta Queer Arts Alliance. Go see “La Cage aux Folles” and enjoy a lively production of an iconic musical while supporting Atlanta communities and an Emory student’s outstanding performance.
Where: Out Front Theatre Company
When: Until Nov. 9
Tickets: $25.75 student tickets including all online fees.