If ever there was a theatrical production which squarely raised the question of false advertising, the current UK touring version of La Cage Aux Folles is it. Instead of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s beautifully written and insightfully scored musical, complete with heart-breaking moments and set pieces of real hilarity, this is very much John Partridge Presents. A sort of show-off television show loosely based on the musical, complete with alternative notes, tunes, characters and routines. It is what it is, but it is not the best of times.
The big television talent quests of the last decade have much for which they should be ashamed, but their worst iniquity involves the way they have altered perceptions about what is required in order to be a star in musical theatre. Audiences today, especially for revivals of musicals starring television personalities, seem less interested in the telling of stories through music, less interested in acting which gets under the skin of a character, and more interested in “rock star” moments, where everything is very loud, backing dancers do their routines, lights blaze and costumes/effects are garish and overblown.
The quest for the “money shot” moment is eternal. Once, when recording artists performed a tune from a musical, it was respected for what it was. No one expected to see or hear the recording artist’s virtuoso performance duplicated on stage. Quite right too. Because in good musical theatre, any song is an expression of the character, a reflection of the narrative, a step along the musical path of the work. This is even so in Juke box musicals, well, the best ones anyway, such as Jersey Boys.
In modern times, though, it seems that both producers of and audiences for revivals of musicals have other ideas. “Stars”, however loosely that term applies, seem required for major roles, whether or not, often, they are actually equal to the task the musical and the part requires. And not just that, but the musical is itself reshaped to accommodate the “star” and to offer that “star” bravura moments destined to result in wild screams of approval from sections of the audience. This is especially so in touring productions, but not exclusively.
The theory seems to be, although it is far from clear, that audiences will come to see their favourite “stars” in a musical but will expect them to “do their schtick” – whatever that is – regardless of whether or not the “star” and the “schtick” suit the musical. Casting Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie is an example of this theory at work. The theory is not concerned with seeing the best possible production of the musical, but the best possible showcase for the “star”.
That theory, combined with the legacy from television talent shows, accounts for the startling revival of La Cage Aux Folles, currently touring the UK. The production is entirely about John Partridge and, on that basis, can be adjudged a success. It permits Partridge to show off his voice, his dancing, his legs, his caustic banter, his A List Gay Celebrity persona, his ability to wear a frock with confidence – all of which he does with relish and unrelenting exuberance.
What Partridge doesn’t do, however, is play Albin, the glorious character crafted by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman, one of the central couple around whom La Cage Aux Folles revolves. He might say the words and do the routines, but there is no sense of Albin, just an impressive set of Partridge moments. More than anything else, the overall feeling one gets is that one is watching The John Partridge Show, a television variety programme designed to showcase Partridge’s talents.
It is a deliberate choice. Partridge spars with the audience, tears down the fourth wall with his perfectly white teeth, ensures he is always in the spotlight, always the focus. He uses an absurd northern accent which has nothing to do with the refined tones of Albin. He sings and dances like a character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, all sharp tongues, stern make-up, fierce hair, quivering lips, outrageous costumes, perfectly supple legs, effete moves in contrast to well-toned torso. It must be exhausting for Partridge to perform; it is certainly exhausting to watch.
This is not to say that Partridge is a terrible performer. Clearly he is not. But he is quite a terrible Albin. And given that the ticket price was for a seat to La Cage Aux Folles, this is a serious problem.
If the ticket were for a John Partridge show, there would be no issue.
But La Cage Aux Folles is not a show for a single person. It never has been and it likely never will be. It’s not Gypsy or Mame or Hello Dolly! for a transsexual.
No. It is a story about a lasting romance between Georges and Albin, their love for the boy they raised together, and what happens when that boy wants to bring home – and marry – a girl whose parents regard his parents as abominations.
Usually, one of the key problems with La Cage Aux Folles is understanding why Jean-Michele, Albin and Georges’ son, is so willing to turn on the man who has been his mother most of his life. It’s not that he doesn’t love Albin, that is clear. In the end it turns out to be a combination of youthful foolishness and blindness borne out of peer pressure – and the great exhilaration in La Cage Aux Folles comes when Jean-Michele stands up for his parents and is unwilling to marry his beloved Anne without revealing the truth about his family.
Here, it was perfectly understandable why Jean-Michele did not want Partridge’s Albin at the wedding or indeed anywhere near Anne. No warmth of any kind was extended by Partridge to Dougie Carter’s Jean-Michele. No sense of romantic joy was repaid to Adrian Smed’s Georges when he sang Song In The Sand and it was faintly ridiculous to think that this Georges and this Albin were, in fact, soulmates and longtime lovers. A complete lack of chemistry, borne out of Partridge’s performance choices, puts paid to one of the musical theatre’s most compelling and unique love stories.
When all the effort into Albin is expended on looking good, dancing energetically, and singing up a storm, there is no room left for subtlety and nuance. A Little More Mascara is a glorious song, funny and fabulous. It has a clear purpose – to show that in Albin’s mind there is the dull, boring Albin and the made-up, frocked-up, fabulous Zsa Zsa. But Zsa Zsa really only appears on stage, not backstage. Albin is talented but riddled with self-doubt, constantly needing reassurance and care. This is the great duality about Albin. (Actually, the correct stage name might be Zaza, but somehow with this production, it was unquestionably Zsa Zsa).
With Partridge, though, Zsa Zsa was never not there: rather than Albin and Zsa Zsa, Partridge gives Zsa Zsa and Zsa Zsa Zsa! Full on is the constant mode. I Am What I Am is delivered like an anthem at a Gay Rights rally rather than a key moment for a character who draws a line, emphatically asserting his right to be treated fairly and honestly by those he loves. Done properly in the spirit of the show, that number represents a step Albin has never taken, no matter what Zsa Zsa has done. He stands up for himself; he is not making a plea for tolerance world wide.
The built-in encores for Partridge’s numbers (some of which simply bewilder the audience) and the high alternate notes he belts out, change the nature of Albin’s music. It’s all showy and gaudy – but there is just no heart to underpin anything. The extended sequence of crowd baiting in the middle of the title number seems unendurably brittle and snarky, rather than warm, witty and cheeky.
Director Martin Connor and Producer Bill Kenwright are clearly happy with all of this. So too were a portion of the audience I saw this production with. Raucous laughter was frequent – but it did seem people were laughing at the characters rather than with them. However, I detected no tears from anyone in the auditorium, no sense that a bitter-sweet tragedy was playing out before them. The relentless focus on Partridge comes at the cost of the musical’s greatest strengths.
Without question, the production of La Cage Aux Folles looks fabulous. Gary McCann has cornered the market on gold and plush red velvet and the settings and backdrops are all deliciously sumptuous, splendidly appropriate. For once, the apartment Georges and Albin share looks like a home, albeit one where a taste for homoerotica is clearly mandatory. Costumes too, are quite magnificent, even if some of Zsa Zsa’ outfits are ripe for a Handel opera. Richard Mawbey, genius that he is, provides superb wigs which allow Partridge to channel pretty much any 1950s movie star diva you can imagine.
Bill Deamer provides spirited choreography that showcases Partridge and keeps everyone else in his shadow. The Cagelles do Deamer’s work great justice, and Mark Crossland’s hardworking and snappy band ensure the music is given as much power as is possible given the few players who are engaged. Oh, for more strings.
Dougie Carter is sweet as Jean-Michele, and when he delivers With Anne On My Arm it is the first time in the show that lyrics can be properly made out. Alexandra Robinson makes a suitably adorable Anne. Both display charm and chemistry undetected between Partridge and Zmed.
Zmed is passable as Georges, but he is hamstrung by not really being given anything to build on by Partridge. He doesn’t really have the right voice for Georges either, and Song In The Sand is not as exquisite as it might be.
Marti Webb soldiers on as Jacqueline, slightly terrified, it seemed, of stepping into Partridge’s light. Usually the role of Jacob affords a comic highlight and it is true that Samson Ajewole does a great job – but he is hampered by the fact that Partridge takes all the moves that might normally be associated with this most singular of butlers.
One of the great ironies about all of this is that actually Partridge would probably make an excellent Georges. But the lack of feeling, love, pain, joy, sadness, in his voice when singing fatally undermines his Albin. His voice might be brassy, bold and cold but it is not equal to the exacting requirements of Albin’s emotional journey.
Bill this show as what it is: The John Partridge Show. It’s a great night out if that is what you come for.
But if you want to see La Cage Aux Folles, this is not the ticket you need.