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La Cage aux Folles
Book by Harvey Fierstein, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
Choreographed by Michelle Sauer and Sarah Rae Womack
New Line Theatre
March 16, 2019

Zachary Allen Farmer, Robert Doyle
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre has staged another remarkable production with their rendition of the modern classic musical La Cage aux Folles. As often happens at New Line, this production distills the essence of the show and brings out its human drama, emphasizing character and relationships, along with the excellent singing that I’ve come to expect from this company. In addition, it’s also sparkly and dazzling, with a strong ensemble and a truly stunning performance from one of New Line’s most recognizable players.

This production is also my introduction to this show, in terms of seeing it live. I’d heard the score many times, and seen clips of televised performances of some of the songs, but I’d never seen a production of the show before until now. I did know the story, though. It focuses on performers in a drag show at a nightclub in Saint-Tropez, France. Georges (Robert Doyle) is the MC of the show, and his longtime partner Albin (Zachary Allen Farmer) is the star of the show, performing as “Zaza” and backed by Les Cagelles (Jake Blonstein, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg, and Ian McCreary). Offstage, Georges and Albin live in an apartment over the club, and are attended by the enthusiastic butler/maid Jacob (Tiélere Cheatem), who is also an aspiring drag performer who wants to be in the show. Georges has a son, Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz), whom Georges and Albin have raised together. Now, Jean-Michel has returned with announcement–he’s engaged, and his fiancée, Anne (Zora Vredeveld) is the daughter of a prominent ultra-conservative political candidate, and he’s invited her parents (Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini) to meet his parents, but with a twist that leads to much examination of relationships, identity, and the sense of belonging for Albin, Georges, Jean-Michel and eventually most of the cast. This version is based on the most recent London and Broadway revivals, with a smaller cast than the original Broadway production, but with the catchy, memorable Jerry Herman score intact, as well as Harvey Fierstein’s insightful book and the memorable lead characters.

Casting-wise, this production shines, and particularly as a showcase for one of New Line’s most prolific performers. Thinking of all the shows I’ve seen at New Line since the first one I saw (Next to Normal) in 2013, it’s easier for me to count the shows Zachary Allen Farmer hasn’t performed in than the ones in which he has appeared. Still, seeing him here as Albin/Zaza is something of a revelation. Farmer is always excellent, but he’s especially so here, bringing out a depth and richness to both his acting and his always remarkable vocals on songs like the title number and especially the fiery “I Am What I Am” and the catchy “The Best of Times”.  Also, as with the best of performers, he brings a sheer level of stage presence that not only lights up the stage, but energizes everyone around him. A particular beneficiary of this energizing is Doyle as Georges, who starts off slowly but gets better and better as the show goes along, especially in his scenes with Farmer. The two have a strong, believable chemistry that lends poignancy to their characters’ relationship as a couple, exemplified in Georges’s ballad “Song of the Sand” and its duet reprise. Also standing out is Cheatem is a delightfully scene-stealing performance as the stylishly determined Jacob. There’s also strong support from Lindsey Jones as Georges and Albin’s friend, the vivacious restaurateur Jacqueline, and by Corpuz, who gives a strong performance as Jean-Michel, who also has convincing chemistry with Vredeveld as the sweet but little-seen Anne. Coffel and Bollini are also memorable in dual roles as two very different couples–the supportive, friendly Renauds and the more severe Dindons. There’s also excellent support from Joel Hackbarth as the club’s stage manager Francis and memorable, energetic singing and dancing from les Cagelles.

Visually, this show is striking, with a bold, flashy and very pink set by Rob Lippert, who also designed the excellent lighting. Sarah Porter deserves special mention for her spectacular costumes, from the sparkling Cagelles outfits to Jacob’s memorable attire, to Albin/Zaza’s array of eye-ctaching ensembles, many of which have a mid-80s vibe. There’s also an excellent New Line Band conducted by Music Director and pianist Nicolas Valdez, and vibrant choreography by Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack, performed with flair by the cast.

This is a show I’d heard a lot about, and I knew some of the songs well, but I hadn’t seen it on stage until New Line brought it to the stage with its usual insightful, inventive style. This is a fun show with a lot of flash, but it’s also a very human show, with poignancy and wit and charm. It’s another winning production from New Line.

Cast of La Cage Aux Folles
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting La Cage au Folles at the Marcelle Theatre until March 23, 2019

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Hello, Dolly!
Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Ralph Perkins
The Muny
August 11, 2014

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Beth Leavel (center) and Ensemble
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Hello Dolly! and the Muny are a match made in Theatre Heaven. As is fitting for a show about a matchmaker, the two parties in this particular relationship are most ideally suited. Hello Dolly! when staged well, is a big, colorful, flashy show with lots of energy and heart, and the Muny has built its reputation around just this type of show.  After an especially impressive season that started with a wonderful production of a newer show, Billy Elliot, the Muny is closing out their 2014 schedule with this big, brassy charmer of a Broadway classic, scaled just right to fit the colossal stage and delight the eyes, ears and hearts  of the vast Muny audience.

I’ve seen quite a few productions of this show over the years, including the last (also excellent) Muny production in 2007 that featured a more subdued portrayal of the title character. This time, though, Dolly Gallagher Levi, as played by Beth Leavel, is back to her larger-than-life ways, and is the real center of this production.  Leavel’s Dolly is such a presence that even when she’s off stage, her influence is obvious. With a big personality, a strong voice and lots of quirky style, Leavel commands the stage.  She is well-matched with John O’Hurley as the curmudgeonly half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, on whom the widowed Dolly sets her sights. Telling the story of Dolly’s various matchmaking efforts and their effects on Horace and those around him, this production has all the elements this show requires and then some, with big, flashy production numbers, strong choreography by Ralph Perkins, colorful period-specific costumes by Amy Clark, and a simple but striking set designed by Michael Schweikart that features some wonderfully detailed backdrops.  It’s a valentine to late 19th Century New York, with infectious energy and memorable production numbers from the iconic title song to the big, stage-filling “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, and more.

In addition to the ideal casting of Leavel and O’Hurley, the supporting players also turn in excellent work. Muny veteran Rob McClure, so memorable as Gomez in The Addams Family and Bert in Mary Poppins, is in fine form here as Horace’s sheltered chief clerk Cornelius Hackl, who is eager to get at least one small break from his humdrum Yonkers existence and experience adventure in the big city. McClure is able to be charming, bumbling, a nimble dancer, and a hopeless romantic all at once, with great renditions of the rousing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and the heartwarming “It Only Takes a Moment”.  He’s paired well with Mamie Parris as the widowed hatmaker Irene Molloy, who displays strong chemistry with McClure and an impressive voice on her showcase song, “Ribbons Down My Back”.  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the naive assistant clerk Barnaby Tucker, and Eloise Kropp as Irene’s shop assistant Minnie Fay deliver memorable comic performances, as well, as do Daniel Berryman as artist and would-be dancer Ambrose Kemper and Berklea Going as the object of his affection, Horace’s weepy neice, Ermengarde.  This production can also boast of a very impressive ensemble, especially the men who get to show off their athletic dancing skills in the wildly energetic “Waiters’ Gallop” number.

Although there were a few issues with the sound on opening night, as well as one noticeable (but well-covered) line flub, this production is otherwise staged with remarkable precision and timing.  The famous staircase scene is timed just right, and Leavel is adept at interacting with both the ensemble and the audience, generating waves of enthusiastic applause.  The Act One ending “Before the Parade Passes By” also puts the giant Muny stage to excellent use, featuring a memorable appearance by the O”Fallon Township High School marching band.  And speaking of bands, the Muny’s own wonderful orchestra–conducted by Musical Director James Moore–is in top form here as well, keeping up the energy and pacing of this classic Jerry Herman score.

This rendition  of Hello Dolly! is the latest piece of evidence that the Muny–under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson–is back on form as befits its illustrious reputation.  This has been another entertaining season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on offer next summer.  Echoing this show’s title song, I’ll say another enthusiastic hello to the new, improved Muny–it’s nice to have it back where it belongs, at the top of its game. Long may this revitalized tradition continue!

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Eloise Kropp, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Mamie Parris, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

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Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Michael Stewart

based on the play The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder

Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Choreographed by Karma Camp

Co-Produced by Ford’s Theatre Society and Signature Theatre

Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

March 15th, 2013

fordstheatre

I recently had the opportunity to return to my old stomping grounds, the Washington DC area, on a family trip.  Despite having grown up there and having participated in countless school field trips to various Nation’s Capital attractions, I had never managed to make it to the historic Ford’s Theatre until this latest trip.  Most famous for its connection to Abraham Lincoln, the theatre is now both a historical attraction (with an excellent museum) and a working theatre hosting several productions each year.

This is a smaller production of Hello Dolly! than usual.  The show has been known for elaborate, colorful costumes, a large cast and lots of spectacle, such as the title number with Dolly descending a grand staircase accompanied by a large chorus of waiters. The last time I saw this show was in 2007 at the Muny, a venue which seems the very definition of “larger than life”, to the point where in comparison, a production like this might be akin to producing the show in someone’s basement.  Still, it’s a glorious “basement” and the ideal setting for this slightly re-imagined production. In this version, the cast is smaller, the spectacle is brought down and the costumes, while still beautifully made, are more muted.  The emphasis here is more on character than spectacle, and for the most part, it works.

This is the classic story of widowed matchmaker and professional meddler Dolly Gallagher Levi (Nancy Opel), who aims to arrange a marriage for Yonkers “half-millionaire”, the curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Edward Gero) without letting him know that her intended bride for him is herself.  Dolly also has a few other schemes up her sleeve, involving several people in Horace’s circle, including his chief clerk Cornelius Hackl (Gregory Maheu) and young assistant Barnaby Tucker (Zachary Collona), who go on an adventure of their own involving widowed hatshop owner Irene Molloy (Tracy Lynn Olivera) and her young employee Minnie Faye (Lauren Williams).  All of these characters spend an eventful day in New York City, where Dolly’s influence is shown to be far-reaching, and where the various characters pursue their dreams and get more than they bargained for in various ways.

Opel is a wistful, engaging Dolly.  In contrast to previous interpretations that have emphasized the character’s hyper-competence, Opel brings the character’s sense of regret to the forefront. She has excellent chemistry with Edward Gero as Horace and has handles most of her numbers very well. Her highlights musically are the opening sequence (“I Put My Hand In”), “Motherhood”, the title song and “So Long, Dearie”, which is her tour-de-force as far as I’m concerned.  It was such a strong moment for her, and Gero’s reactions to her were perfectly appropriate.  All of these numbers that have her interacting with other characters, and the chemistry is strong.  Gero is a humanized Horace—stubborn and set in his ways, but convincingly changing throughout the show and warming up to Dolly.  Together, Opel and Gero make their growing relationship both engaging and believable.

As celebrated as the character of Dolly is,  my favorite story line in this show has always been the B-plot, with Horace and Barnaby going out on the town with Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay, and all the players do well here.  Maheu is an earnest, charming Cornelius and his chemistry with Olivera’s Irene  is striking, particularly in what is probably the best staging of “It Only Takes a Moment” I’ve ever seen.  Olivera is in very strong voice as Irene, delivering an excellent rendition of “Ribbons Down My Back”. Collona brings an amiable energy and strong dancing to the role of Barnaby, and Williams  turns in an engagingly funny performance as Minnie Faye.  These four performers make the most of their scenes together, and numbers like the hilarious “Motherhood” and  the charming “Elegance”are delightful highlights of the show, also with their inventive staging and well-executed choreography.  This show has a very strong cast all around, as well, and a delightful ensemble, particularly in regard to dancing.

I liked Adam Koch’s simple but effective train station set, in muted colors to set the mood of the times, and with wheeled luggage racks that are reused as set pieces throughout. The costumes by Wade Laboissonniere are extremely well-done as well.  The colors may not be eye-poppingly bright as in some other productions of this show, but all of the costumes are exquisitely made with rich fabrics and patterns and very much evocative of the era.   I also loved the strong choreography, most notably in the energetic “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and in the title song, which isn’t as flashy as previous productions, but is extremely well-staged and performed with a lot of style and class by Opel and the ensemble of four waiters.

I was glad to be able to witness this remarkable joint production by the Ford’s Theatre Society and the DC area’s much-acclaimed Signature Theatre, and the production is well-realized and directed by Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer.  It’s a different Dolly than audiences may be expecting, but the experiment in bringing this show down to scale pays off in highlighting the atmosphere of the 1890’s and the relationships between the characters. This production is a treat for the eyes, ears, and heart, and well worth checking out before it closes in May.

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