La Cage Aux Folles – New Wimbledon Theatre and Touring

048_La Cage Aux Folles_Pamela Raith Photography

John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London. Picture: Pamela Raith Photography

La Cage Aux Folles continues at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London until 18 March and then tours until 26 August.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The first-ever UK tour of Jerry Herman’s insanely entertaining 1983 Broadway hit – it picked up six Tonys and ran for four and a half years – is a riot of colour, high-kicks and sauciness with a genuinely funny script, brilliant lead performance by John Partridge, and songs you’ll be humming all the way home.

It has always been a show that’s hard not to love and this version ticks all the right boxes, a love story between gay Saint Tropez nightclub owners Georges and Albin, who have to pretend to be ‘normal’ when Georges’ son invites home his fiancee’s homophobic parents to meet them.

It was always Herman’s masterpiece and, of course, in ‘I Am What I Am’ it gave an enduring anthem to the gay movement, shining a beacon of defiance at a time when AIDs was at its peak. It was brave at the time and is still relevant today.

Ex-EastEnders regular Partridge, as Albin who turns into glamorous drag queen Zaza, the star of their nightly cabaret, plucks every last drop out of his big moment in an explosion of emotion that had a noisy, involved audience heading to the bar at the end of Act I needing a stiff drink.

Harvey Fierstein’s script never flags, opening at lickety-spit pace; while the frenetic dancing keeps us guessing as to how many of the Les Cagelles ‘gals’ are blokes. Things only let up when Adrian Zmed (Georges) slows it down for that gorgeous, wistful ballad ‘Song On the Sand’.

Not sure why they decided to import the American actor-singer Zmed for the tour when plenty of good, middle-aged British actors would have relished the part, but vocally it is hard to fault the one-time Grease 2 star and his scenes with his long-standing, flamboyant partner feel just right.

In 1983 they were worried about over-egging the intimate side of the relationship, but the world has thankfully moved on a fair bit since.

Once heard, ‘Song On the Sand’ is never forgotten and much the same can be said about ‘The Best of Times’ and ‘Look Over There’, while you couldn’’t begin to guess how many millions Herman has earned out of ‘I Am What I Am’.

Son Jean-Michel’s ‘With Anne On My Arm’ is another memorable ballad that gives Dougie Carter the chance to shine and he grabs the opportunity with both hands.

Then there’s the oft-repeated title song – if only today’s songwriters could come up with so much material that we instantly recognise 34 years down the line.

Marti Webb, best known for following Elaine Paige as Evita and later the star of that mini-classic Tell Me On a Sunday, is wasted as restaurant owner Jacqueline with only half a song to sing but the towering Samson Ajewole has much fun with housemaid Jacob.

Paul F Monaghan and Su Douglas are the stick-in-the-mud parents eventually won round by the young lovers, with Douglas particularly good when she lets her hair down.

Martin Connor directs with flair; there’s nothing that Bill Deamer doesn’t know about choreography and it shows; while MD Mark Crossland and his six musicians appear to love playing Herman’s inspired score.

Costumes are breathtaking – Gary McCann responsible for their design as well as the set – and Richard Mawbey’s wig and make-up expertise is employed to the full.

The piece is brought up to date with some topical references from that naughty Albin, including a dig at the Sunny Afternoon poster outside (the Kinks musical lands in Wimbledon on 28 March) in what must be the ultimate feelgood show. The standing ovation said it all.

La Cage is now on the road until the end of August. I hope full houses follow this extravagantly witty, tuneful, loveable show around. The Best of Times? Definitely!

Jeremy Chapman

www.kenwright.com

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