In my recent interview with actor Greg Armstrong-Morris he claimed to be in a perfect place in both career and life to play the role of Albin in La Cage aux Folles. I’m happy to say that he is right; I only wish the rest of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company production was as perfect.
I have been a huge fan of the Playhouse’s holiday choices, with its preference for shows like The Drowsy Chaperone and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that one does not normally associate with this time of year. While other local theatre companies continue to serve up more familiar Christmas fare, the Playhouse continues its tradition with La Cage aux Folles and its wonderful message of acceptance and family, set against a backdrop of the infamous Saint Tropez nightclub full of drag queens.
But be warned, in this pared down version of the show, everything is smaller. Much of the glitz in the larger-than-life production numbers in the nightclub are replaced by a much smaller Les Cagelles chorus of real-life Vancouver drag stars, the orchestra becomes a band of six and the sets, costumes and dance numbers are all somehow muted. The only hold out is Vincent Tong who appears to have not received director Max Reimer’s memo and gives a wickedly funny portrayal of butler/maid Jacob who, along with Armstrong-Morris, rightfully received the most appreciation at the curtain. The rest of the Les Cagelles could take lessons from Tong who’s every appearance helped give the show a much needed energy boost.
As this newer version relies heavily on the relationship between Albin and Georges, it is both its strength and weakness. Where I missed the over-the-top numbers with their big look and big sound, I did buy into the relationship between Albin and Georges.
Armstrong-Morris so completely disappears into his role as Albin that had I not known who was behind the gowns, wigs and wild make-up, I would have never guessed. He not only nails the overblown drama of the rejected Albin but also achieves a beautiful sensitivity in his relationship with Georges and man (or should I say woman) can this guy sing! If only his near perfect songs, including the iconic “I Am What I Am”, didn’t highlight the struggles of some of the other singers around him, including Marr who plays his lover Georges.
While there is a nice tenderness between the two leads in their duets, Marr seemed to be more hesitant in his role and never quite matches Armstrong-Morris’ singing abilities. Perhaps it was under the spectre of this toned down version of the show that even as the club’s master of ceremonies he appeared uncomfortable and at times nervous.
Like the show itself, Pam Johnson’s turntable set lacked any real pizazz. While Phillip Clarkson’s costumes fare better, at one point he bedazzles the Les Cagelles in glorious twinkle lights. However, the effect is never fully realized as the stage never goes to black and in an outrageous show with so few outrageous moments, this felt like such a wasted opportunity. Even with its diminished numbers, the small band led by musical director Bill Sample still managed to overpower some of the chorus.
While perhaps not on par with previous seasonal offerings at the Playhouse, thanks to Armstrong-Morris’s sequined “like-a-glove” performance, there is still much to love here. And really, isn’t that what the holidays are all about?
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Based on the play La Cage aux Folles by Jean Poiret. Directed by Max Reimer. Musical direction by Bill Sample. On stage at the Vancouver Playhouse through December 24, 2011. Visit http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com for tickets and information.