The new mounting of La Cage aux Folles, the initial outing of TheaterFirst Productions at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater, comes with 103 original, hand-sewn costumes. Count ’em. Well, you can’t. The six Cagelles (both femmes and hims) are constantly in motion, with new outfits nearly every number, and the dual role of Albin/ZaZa, as played by Frank Fiumano, can never be seen in the same lycra and sequins, or wig, twice. For this revival of the perennial local favorite, it may look like old wine in new bottles. Make that old elixir in new threads. And those threads glimmer.
Think “elixir” sounds too rich? Watching Fiumano as ZaZa stride down the catwalk and work the audience is one of the rare Syracuse community theater events you put high on your bucket list. You must see it before you die.
When Fiumano started the salty, ad-lib routine years ago he sounded like an Italian Pearl Bailey, but over the years he has built on his own impeccable timing. The leer and the snap are entirely his own. Maybe some of the jibes and digs are repeated from performance to performance, but you wouldn’t believe it. Fiumano also updates the cultural allusions, such as a slam at Justin Bieber, who was born well after the show’s local premiere in 1988.
Fiumano also comes on full throttle for the gay rights anthem, “I Am What I Am,” that closes the first act, as effective as any persuasion in the show. On to other emotions, Fiumano is joyously celebratory in the duet “The Best of Times,” with rival restaurateur Jacqueline (Rita Worlock), near the end of the second act. Composer Jerry Herman, always more florid and assertive than his contemporary Stephen Sondheim, is in his most characteristic voice here. Fiumano and director Shannon Tompkins stage this scene perfectly, in which everything is going swimmingly until, oops, the charade pops.
In an interview for a Syracuse New Times cover story in December 1997, Fiumano revealed that he refused the role in the first production at Salt City Center for the Performing Arts in 1988. He didn’t think he was right for the Albin/ZaZa, and he didn’t want to do drag. Yeah, well Yul Brynner was actually second choice for the title role in The King and I. Directors and producers are sometimes more astute in these things than performers are, and in his program notes, Fiumano still thanks Bob Fitzsimmons, who helmed the first one, one of the great box-office smashes the old Salt City Center on South Crouse ever hosted.
As a compliment “legendary” often comes cheap, but this show has generated rich oral tradition, even while moving around town with different companies. After Salt City Center, La Cage enjoyed standing-room-only revivals with Christine Lightcap’s Talent Company, also on the New Times Theater stage. Over the decades Jesus Christ Superstar, with two of the same players as here, certainly did better box office, always produced by the same company. La Cage, on the other hand, retains an identity based on its two principal players, who don’t change (except perhaps for wider waistlines). Some members of the cast were not born by the 1988 Syracuse opening, and others, like Tompkins, would not have been old enough to drive then.
Then there’s the other half of the lead couple, and he’s not exactly chopped mascara, either: Bob Brown as Georges, the owner of the St. Tropez nightclub La Cage aux Folles. Since Georges has to be the sane, level-headed one during Albin/ZaZa’s wildest antics, Brown sometimes seems like a straight man—in that earlier sense of being the springboard for somebody else’s gags. Only Brown, Syracuse’s favorite baritone, brings a lot more, notably a sense of conviction that has not wavered in more than 20 years.
Some of this is just history, as Brown and Fiumano have long played opposite each other (Jesus and Pontius Pilate) and are known to be deep pals offstage. He delivers in the solo “Look Over There,” in which he cajoles his callow son, Jean-Michel (Daryl Acevedo), not to discard his real mother (Albin) to win favor with his beloved Anne (Kimberly Grader) and the nutcase family-values homophobes who will become his potential in-laws.
The rest of La Cage is filled with new faces, of which the most important belongs to Jacob (Maxwel Anderson), the outrageous cross-dressing butler who longs to be seen as a housemaid. The role was written for scene-stealing and is usually played either by a person of color or one with an exotic accent. Pale, beige Anderson seizes every opportunity: He sounds like a voice from an impossible-to-place call center, while his physical comedy delivers a lithe spunkiness that suggests a dancer who has also trained as a gymnast.
Physical comedy, interspersed with some astonishing grace, is the currency of the six Cagelles. The synchronized high-kicks, with feet above heads, win deserved applause, especially as they are harder to do (ugh!) for the guys. Hanna (C. Healy) the dominatrix wields a mean whip, leading to a long-running joke with her submissive lover, stagehand Francis (Derek M. Potocki). Versatile Chantal (L. Fitzpatrick) sings opera, tall, blonde Mercedes (E. Powers) is a tease, and the outrageousness of Phaedra (A. Wright) competes with Jacob’s. At the final revelation, Clo-Clo (M. Austin) and Lo Singh (P. Marsteller) turn out to be the most beautiful.
In a testimony to executive producer Eugene Taddeo’s esteem in the community, he has attracted strong, Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award-winning talent in supporting roles, starting with Jodie Baum, always in good voice, as Georges’ associate Madame Renaud. Glamour girl Rita Worlock rises to new stature as Jacqueline, and also wins the improv prize for quick thinking in the performance where part of the set failed her.
Veterans Michael O’Neill and Binaifer Dabu are cast wildly against type as the reactionary parents. O’Neill’s strategy is to make the rightist windbag a personification of vanity and self-importance, while Dabu’s repressed wife harbors an ill-concealed inner sybarite, ready to break free.
Which brings us back to those marvelous duds the cast is wearing. Producer-costumer Taddeo has been on the scene for 40 years, going back to Father Charles Borgognoni’s Pompeian Players, and turned out the garments for countless productions for other local companies. No other musical in the repertory calls for such an expenditure of chiffon, tulle, sequins, lycra and spandex, especially for some of the huskier Cagelles, who appear dainty here. With this La Cage Taddeo gets to see and hear what he wants, including a nine-player pit orchestra led by Roy George. The intense labor required to get everyone dressed boggles the mind.
Taddeo says he has other productions in mind, to be announced later. Yet whatever Taddeo’s TheaterFirst does, expect it to live up to the highest compliment Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class could give: It has the look.
This production runs through July 1. See Times Table for information.