By Chad Nance
Photos by Matthew Lopina & Dancing Lemur
One of the absolute best aspects of life in Winston-Salem is the stunning quality of talent just free-ranging around to be discovered at unexpected moments. While solid productions and performances are the norm for the Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance, nothing I’ve seen there before prepared me for the joy, the craft, the exuberance, and the passion of their 2014 production of “La Cage aux Folles”.
The production includes two of the best performances in a long run of strong work. Gray Smith as Albin and Chuck King as Georges give empathetic, moving, funny, and technically brilliant performances that manage to not only hold the stage, but also serve to support some amazing back up work by Tyler Carlson as Jacob and Dave Wils as Georges and Albin’s son, Jean-Michel.
The book, based on the French play and film series of the same name, was written by legendary LGBT activist and artist, Harvey Fierstein with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. It is a well known story about a gay couple, their love-struck son, and his moralizing, right-wing extremist future in-laws. What director Jamie Lawson and his crew accomplishes with Theatre Alliance’s “La Cage aux Folles” is significant, entertaining, and emotionally satisfying.
Gray Smith inhabits the role of Albin from his hilarious dramatics and deft physical comedy to revealing a heart that has been wounded and broken many times over the years. Albin is the raw nerve of “La Cage aux Folles” as well as acting as the musical’s conscience. Smith has a particular charisma in the role that makes the audience feel both Albin’s pain and his joy. (often within seconds of one another.) He is also more than believable as a popular Cabaret entertainer. Simply, when Gray Smith is on stage in this role it is hard to notice the other performers. It would be more difficult, however, if Smith were not such a giving performer. Not only does his Albin act out and bring the camp, he also listens and loves deeply. It is a bravura performance that will long be remembered for its power and grace. Gray also has an amazing singing voice and the ability to truly express hurt and loss while at the same time projecting strength. His First Act closing performance of “I Am What I Am” is absolutely magnificent and will send you into intermission deeply moved and completely hooked into the lives of these wonderful characters.
The generosity in Gray’s performance gives Chuck King time and space to do his more quiet work as Georges. King is able to make the middle aged night-club impresario’s deep and abiding love for his husband complex and believable. The role of Georges can be played as condescending to Albin or as an exasperated “straight man”. King’s performance is nothing of the sort. While there are repeated references to Albin’s personal sacrifices and efforts to raise Jean-Michel in a loving home, King’s Georges also lives in the service of Albin in a relationship that manages to be romantic, loving, and symbiotic at the same time. King handles all of the heavy-lifting and like Smith turns the cabaret scenes into an entertaining and seductive tour-de-force.
Dave Wils plays Jean-Michel with a soft enough touch that he never comes off simply as an unappreciative prick of a son. A character who could simply come off as a selfish pill instead becomes a three-dimensional human being that parents will recognize. This is a young man trying to find his own place in the world and finding that the constraints that our parent’s realities put on a child are sometimes difficult. In the end, however, Wils plays a loving and proud child who does not “accept” his parents (Georges & Albin both know exactly who they are and don’t need anyone’s approval.) he simply loves them with all of his heart.
Tyler Carlson’s performance as Jacob, the “butler” keeps the laughs coming so consistently that just his presence on stage signaled that something truly funny was about to happen. There is a clumsy sweetness and wicked humor to his performance that reveals a serious talent. Ken Ashford appears late in the second act as the right-wing Deputy Dindon. His physical comedy and willing to go all in for a joke is heroic and one of the funniest moments in the show is his Limbaugh-looking politician running headlong into a troop of transvestites. Charlena Cole’s singing as Colette and Danya Bray’s performance as the put upon Mrs. Dindon further feather this very ample nest of talent.
John Shea deserves special mention. His comic timing, gleeful perversion, and expressive face make his appearances as stage-manager Francis and Tabarro the Fisherman small studies in comic brilliance.
The entire crew of transvestite performers (Les Cagelles) are absolutely magnificent. Their performances are funny, athletic, and supremely entertaining. Rather than simply becoming a faceless group of dancers in drag each of the performers take the time to create a character that is an individual with real personalities and peculiarities.
Music Director Charlie Kurtz and his musicians were tight and skillful. Scenic Designer Thad Templeton and Stage Manager Jamie Lawson have a new gadget in their toolbox that allows them to block and stage “La Cage aux Folles” in a more complex way than past Theatre Alliance productions. A new proscenium, donated by Dr. Maureen and Bob Ihrie, allows for scene changes to remain hidden and provides the performers and director to focus the audiences attention directly to specific moments and bits that have sometimes been lost in the bustle of changing the sets between scenes.
Wig Designer Caitllin Malloy and Costume Designer Emily Mays do yeoman’s work on “La Cage aux Folles”. Some of the costumes and wigs feel like sets unto themselves and without the detailed and meticulous work what comes across as real and authentic. Their efforts make this production the most visually entertaining and exciting that Theatre Alliance has put on for some time.
In the end “La Cage aux Folles” is about family. Not the kind of family that is thrust upon us by birth and blood, but the kind of family that we chose because it is where our heart is at. This is a more authentic sense of family that is truly the foundation of any working, egalitarian community. The decisions made by the characters in “La Cage aux Folles” are sometimes selfish and sometimes heartbreaking. What keeps the darkness at bay and makes this production such a wonderful experience is the bass-line that runs through every word, song, and step? Love.