Wild Rice’s extravagant La Cage Aux Folles is running from 20th July to 4th August 2012, at the Esplanade Theatre, and is probably going to be the most enjoyable and most fun musical you see in Singapore this year. La Cage is full of glitzy costumes, rip-roaring comedy, memorable songs, and great acting, all encased in campy fun.
The premise of La Cage is simple: George (Tony Eusoff) and Albin (Ivan Heng) are a gay couple, Albin a drag queen (“Zaza”) at night who performs at the club next to the house, both of which the couple owns. Things take a dramatic turn when George’s son Jonathan (Aaron Khaled), whom Albin has helped raise, comes home with news that he’s to marry Anne (Seong Hui Xuan), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. C.K. Tan (played by Darius Tan and Karen Tan respectively). Mr. Tan turns out to be from the Traditional Family Morality Party – a conservative party that’s on a mission to close down all establishments of vice, including drag clubs.
Hence, in order to get Mr. Tan to approve of his intention to marry Anne, Jonathan tells George he doesn’t want Albin around on the day Anne’s parents are to visit. Albin finds out, and is devastated. However, when Jonathan’s biological but perpetually drunk and missing mother once again bails out on meeting Anne and her parents, Albin comes up with a plan that puts a hilarious spin to the rest of the story.
Tony Eusoff and Ivan Heng make a loving, believable couple, and their sweet love comes across as palatable and real. Heng plays drag queen Zaza to perfection, whether he is (within the story) being Zaza on stage or off stage. In all her flashy jewelry and embellished gowns, complete with diamante hair accessories, Heng’s Zaza is a sight to behold and audiences will be convinced this is an aging entertainer whose star is perhaps starting to fade a little, but who as her ‘real’ self – the melodramatic Albin – still is someone who has a zest for life and love. Heng’s acting is right on the mark to capture the essence of both Zaza and Albin excellently.
However, where Heng falters is in his singing, as he doesn’t possess a voice meant for stage. Heng’s voice is often drowned out by the orchestra, especially his lower notes, and hence some of the lyrics he sings can’t be made out. Heng’s voice especially pales next to the full and rich baritone of Tony Eusoff, whose voice is in impeccable form, and Eusoff carries his songs with a lot of ease and emotion. Eusoff also is a very competent actor, bringing George’s frustrations to the forefront effectively, as he struggles to find a balance between the wants of his son and the needs of his lover.
Aaron Khaled is wonderful as the son with his melodious and sweet voice portraying the innocent love he has for Anne, while Seong Hui Xuan is as usual a natural on stage as she dances with Khaled and capably plays the young lovebird with the right amount of expression and nuance.
Judee Tan and Andrew Lua also make an appearance as Lily and Ah Beng, owners of a roadside stall frequented by George and Albin. Both Tan and Lua have to be lauded for incorporating little mannerisms, small gestures, and appropriate body language into their exacting portrayals of the waist-pouch-culottes wearing “Ah Lian” and towel-on-shoulder-singlet wearing “Ah Beng” we’re so familiar with in our culture. Speaking mostly in Chinese dialect, both Tan and Lua also perform slapstick that brings the house down.
Tan Kheng Hua has a small role as restaurant owner Jacqueline, and holds herself well as she often does on stage, playing the slightly conniving Jacqueline effortlessly. Darrius Tan and Karen Tan are a hoot playing the conservative parents coming to terms with the untraditional lifestyle of their future in-laws. Both Tans have good comedic timing; Darrius plays the overbearing husband and father persuasively, while Karen plays the nervous and insecure mother to a T.
Hossan Leong, who plays the butler Jacob who prefers to be called the maid Claudine, steals this show. Leong possesses comedic chutzpah, nailing his funny lines just right, displaying Jacob/Claudine’s flamboyant antics with just the appropriate amount of presence and in the process getting the biggest laughs if not from his funny dialogue, then from his over-the-top barely-there costumes and expressions.
Also worth mentioning are the background dancers, the13 Cagelles (made up of three real women and 10 men in drag) who were cast internationally and add spice and glamour to La Cage with their singing, dancing (which includes a thrilling can-can routine), and mesmerizing costumes. At times, their routine could be tighter and more coordinated, but this reviewer can’t find too much fault with these darlings because during the afternoon matinee show there was a technical glitch that left the Cagelles to entertain the audience for a full 20 minutes and these actors did indeed move the crowd with their impromptu comedy, keeping us howling with laughter until the show could go on again.
La Cage’s costumes are courtesy of designer Frederick Lee, and together with makeup designer Beno Lim of MAC Cosmetics and hair stylist Ashley Lim, Lee makes the Cagelles and Albin’s “onstage” performances all the more spellbinding and alluring. It’s easy to spot that a lot of money has gone into costuming and effects.
The swanky choreography is by Lisa Keegan, and while the dancing could be stronger, the choreography is light and frilly when it needs to be (e.g. in Jonathan’s love song about Anne) and raucous and dizzying where it should be (e.g. in the can-can dance). Keegan does an excellent job with the choreography, as does Elaine Chan who serves as musical director and leads the orchestra competently to accompany the dance moves and singing.
Glen Goei’s direction is superb, as he seamlessly takes the audience from being voyeurs of Zaza’s backstage dramatics to becoming active participants in her sparkly onstage performances. With the help of set designer CK Chia whose different sets glide and interchange with one another easily, thereby giving us different points of view, Goei makes the show a little interactive, thus keeping it interesting and unique. The standout set is the one showcasing the roadside stall that’s an absolute replica of any in old town Singapore.
The only tiny fault with the directing is that on two occasions, when the main characters are speaking, there is distracting activity happening mid-stage from the non-speaking cast, which should be minimized.
Having said that, with original music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, the songs in La Cage are most delightful. The melodies are catchy and memorable, while the words impeccably portray the feelings of the characters. The original book was by Harvey Fierstein (who wrote it based on the play of the same name by Jean Poiret) but this local version has Singlish and local humour woven through the dialogue. Look out for references to the recent underaged hooker who got 80 men arrested, and of course the City Harvest Church debacle! All of this is wittily delivered by Heng when he’s wooing us as Zaza, by the way.
So if you’re in the mood for fun or love, or both, La Cage Aux Folles isn’t to be missed. With the good acting, great singing, sublime costumes, fine comedy, exciting dances, and melodious songs, Ls Cage proves that underneath its feathers and sequins lies a cabaret musical that’s just a whole lot of FUN!