Continuing in a run of rarely seen theatrical gems around south east Queensland, Phoenix Ensemble brings to stage the risqué, hilarious, and charming La Cage Aux Folles. With a book by the iconic Harvey Fierstein, and music and lyrics written by Jerry Herman, the show explores the world of Georges and Albin and their nightclub La Cage. The musical inspired the 1996 classic The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
The tin shed is an iconic fixture in the theatre landscape of south east Queensland and the small, intimate space forces production teams to be creative in their choices. Under the watchful direction of David Harrison, and his clever use of set design the show moves at a clip and rarely slows down. Moving easily from nightclub, to restaurant, to living room we are swept up in the over the top world of La Cage. Harrison makes the most of his varied ensemble, creating unique characters that strut the stage in a swirl of feathers, tantrums, and heartfelt performances.
The choreography (Kara Fisher) is simple, but exactly as effective as it needs to be and the cast put their best heeled foot forward. If not always getting the steps exactly right, flourishing their way through the routines in a tight whorl of colour and asides to the audience.
Benjamin Tubb-Hearne leads the band and cast through the drag infused cabaret numbers with a deft hand. It is a difficult vocal score, and on opening night there were some missteps from some cast members, a forgotten line, or a chorus number lacking some strength but Tubb-Hearne was always there to support, bringing the band fully into the world of the nightclub. Additionally, the sounds levels or the small orchestra were well managed considering the performers were not using microphones. The band never overpowering the unmiced performance, but swelling to support where necessary.
Leading the production as Georges, Adam Bartlett excelled. His beautifully understated performance was gorgeous, and he brought a soft realness to the sometimes brash, loud world. His “Song On The Sand” was beautiful and brought the audience to pin drop silence, and he rode the line between flamboyant affectation and quiet charm easily.
Opposite Bartlett, Nathan Skaines brought Albin to life in a blaze of wig changes, shrieks, tears and laughter. The sassy audience interaction was hilarious, and the girlish glee in Masculinity was a delight. Arguably Skaines has the most difficult job in the show, having to find a balance between drag queen and fully fleshed human being. It can easily lead to an over performed version of the character, almost a caricature. Fortunately Skaines largely found the right balance, giving a fully fleshed version of the character behind the make up and if he occasionally allowed his stockinged toe across the line the audience followed him willingly. Certainly there was something refreshing, and beautifully sound in his delivery of “The Best Of Times”.
Playing the wilfully demanding and blinded by love Jean-Michel is Travis Holmes, who gave an endearingly snot nosed performance. Tearing apart Georges and Albin’s world with the single mindedness of a youth in love. “With Anne On My Arm” was a treat to listen to and he lent a quiet, but determined under current to the production.
The polar opposite of that, and coming very close to stealing the entire production and running away with it, was Matthew Dunne’s Jacob. Dunne clearly had a blast popping in and out of each scene, with sassy asides and clearly unhelpful maid service. His performance, especially when teasing Holmes and Bartlett, was simply wonderful.
Guiding the Les Cagelles around the stage is no easy feat, and special mentions must go to Darcy Morris as the whip cracking Hanna who was simply a force of nature on stage. Also to William Chen, who was perpetually down trodden and whose complaints about having to wear heels had several audience members around me muttering their agreement. Additionally, the media hungry Jacqueline (Sabrina Marriott) was charming and full of pointed sass. The real MVP though, should probably go to Francis (Ren Gerry) who was love struck, and actually struck perpetually by Hanna’s whip.
Phoenix Ensemble have a talent for bringing big glitzy musicals and finding a home for them in their 100 seat tin shed. They offer a brand of production that is neither 100% polished, nor 100% perfect but is in so many ways a perfect reflection of real life. La Cage Aux Folles is this. It is messy, and sassy, and unkempt and for all of that it is brilliant and real. As Lin-Manuel Miranda (who manages to make a cameo) so rightly says “fill the world with music, love and pride” and that is exactly what this production does.
Do yourself a favour. Make the trek. Have your eyes opened a little. La Cage Aux Folles runs until the 4th of August 2017 on a strictly limited season.