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Le Cage Aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre

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by Heather Wallace (subscribe)
New to Melbourne from Canberra, I'm sharing hidden treasures as I find them. I'm a lover of the arts, film and museums so Melbourne was the obvious choice for new adventures!
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If there's a sequin shortage in Melbourne, blame opening night of La Cage Aux Folles.

Saturday was a glamorous and glitzy night out at the Playhouse Theatre, for the opening of the Production Company's latest extravaganza.

Simon Burke and Todd McKenney

Many will know the story from the Robin Williams/Nathan Lane film The Birdcage, which was based on the French film of the same that was in turn based on a French play. This musical version is closer to the French play and film than The Birdcage, although the basic plot is the same. The flamboyant owner (Georges, Simon Burke) and star (Albin, Todd McKenney) of the popular San Tropez cabaret lounge La Cage Aux Folles are dismayed when their son announces he is engaged…to a woman!

Not only, that her father is a hard-line political conservative who wants to ban all drag clubs and return to traditional values, and is coming to dinner to meet the prospective in-laws. Cue a farce, interspersed with song, where everyone has to pretend to be red-blooded heterosexuals.

What follows is a night of good old-fashioned farce, mixed in with enough ostrich feathers and marabou to start a zoo. The costumes are sumptuous, the sets are elegant and the show 'girls' of the chorus are beautiful, lithe and acrobatic. One of the girls in particular performed the splits that drew gasps and winces from the audience.

A major difference with the The Birdcage is the portrayal of the conservative politician father, the Hollywood film included a subplot about scandals facing his party that gave him more depth and made him more sympathetic. Here he is little more than a cliché, rude to his wife and with an eye for a pretty actress. It's hard to care about efforts to save him from public disgrace.

That's not the fault of Gary Sweet, he does well with what he's given, he is a charismatic actor, and his best moments are the curtain call where he hams it up in drag.

Aljin Abella as butler/handmaiden/wannabe starlet Jacob steals most of his scenes, popping in and out of doors in a variety of outrageous costumes and delivering withering one-liners, he is a dynamo, a pocket Venus with a penis.

The love struck son Jean-Michel (Robert Tripolino) and girlfriend Anna (Emily Milledge) are sweet but really don't do more than exist to set up the plot. Comedy stalwart Marg Downey takes on a duel role of café owner in the first act and later as the wife of the politician. She's a lovely character and belts out enthusiastic support in a group sing along. Rhonda Burchmore is as radiant as always, but was a little under used.

Ultimately this is a two-man show for McKenney and Burke. McKenney is pitch perfect as the hysterical and over the top Albin, but Burke is more than just his 'straight man'. He is convincing as someone still in love after 20 years, and his love songs are tender and heartfelt.

McKenney has the more physical role, dancing in high heels and signing in corsets. He is having a ball on stage, a true diva as both Albin and his alter ego Zaza, star of the Folles.

Both McKenney and Burke transport you to the cabaret, McKenney in fine form as he breaks character just enough to go from San Tropez to Melbourne, waving to his mum in the audience and casting aspersions on theatre-goers from Brighton.

Their showmanship encourages the audience to switch from polite, but slightly nervous, theatregoers to raucous, foot stomping cabaret patrons centre stage at La Cage Aux Folles itself.

This is a frothy, joyous night of theatre that, despite its underlying theme of loving your family for who they are, isn't serious or overly sentimental.

So ladies and gentlemen… put on your sequins and feathers (de rigor for gentlemen in this case) and join in the fun!

La Cage Aux Folles runs to 7 December at the Playhouse, Melbourne Arts Centre.
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When: 21 November – 7 December 2014
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
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