The Dayton Playhouse has a history of embracing challenges, but the organization overreaches and stumbles with a shaky season-ending production of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 musical “La Cage aux Folles,” based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret.
At its core, “La Cage” is a funny, touching and thought-provoking portrait of a family at odds, but it is also a bold look into a world of mystery, seduction and sensuality, pivotal elements missing in director Doug Lloyd’s dispassionate staging saddled with low energy. The titular St. Tropez nightclub specifically thrives on its entertaining chorus line of Cagelles yet the lukewarm individuals cast in the daring roles fail to typify the troupe’s “notorious” and “dangerous” reputation. Timidity and trepidation is not an option for the Cagelles, and although no one expects the Playhouse to produce an expert quality of drag on par with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (did anyone tell Dayton’s own India Farrah about “La Cage” auditions?), their underdeveloped presence is problematic despite the effort. Without setting the proper tone at the forefront with credible Cagelles, towering examples of individuality and pride defiantly proclaiming “We Are What We Are,” “La Cage” simply loses its identity, morphing into a show that is more about costumes than character.
Even so, the production is primarily and respectively kept afloat by the admirable, witty contributions of Michael Boyd and Richard Croskey in the central roles of La Cage owner/emcee Georges and his female impersonator lover Albin. Croskey, particularly appealing as the flamboyant drag queen Zaza while delivering the saucy title number and the riveting anthem “I Am What I Am,” provides big laughs early in Act 2 when Albin is encouraged to discover his masculinity. This duo establishes a compatible bond and convey genuine parental concern when Georges and Albin’s son Jean-Michel (Zach King) announces his engagement to Anne Dindon (Sarah Parsons), the daughter of unabashedly conservative parents.
In notable featured roles, King, so wonderful ushering in “Springtime for Hitler” in the Playhouse’s marvelous production of “The Producers” last summer, struggled vocally at the performance attended, but is well paired with the winsome Parsons and effectively reiterates Jean-Michel’s insistence that the Dindons meet his parents in the traditional sense by requesting the presence of his estranged birth mother Sybil. Duante Beddingfield is a prime source of comic relief as the fussy Jacob yet his excitable nature feels out of sync because of the off-kilter dynamic among the cast. At the same rate, due to the show’s sheer unevenness, Jeff Campbell and a particularly terrific Karen Righter are able to steal the show as the uptight Edouard and Marie Dindon. Chris Hammond is very engaging as the bubbly Jacqueline.
Elsewhere, set designer Chris Harmon offers one of his most colorful, efficient creations. Choreographer Stacy Gear’s routines are intended to be lively, but lack zest in execution. Stephanie Dickey, Karen Dickey and Kaitlyn Osborn are responsible for the costumes. Music director Ron Kindell leads a steady off-stage orchestra.
This “La Cage” is underwhelmingly stuck in neutral, reticent to truly sparkle and come alive, but perhaps all involved will coalesce to embrace and simply sell the delightful musical theater magic within the material before the production must sashay away.
La Cage aux Folles, which opened Friday, May 13, continues through Sunday, May 29 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 65 minutes. Tickets are $10-$15. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit www.daytonplayhouse.org. In related news, the Playhouse’s 2011-12 season will consist of Jekyll & Hyde, Abie’s Irish Rose, Scrooge, Nunsense, Bus Stop and The Sound of Music.