BWW Review: Michael Silvestri is the Definition of Fabulous in Jerry Herman's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Carrollwood Players
There is a moment so powerful, so transformative, in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Carrollwood Players that audience members were weeping at intermission. "I'm sorry," I overheard an older woman say as she wiped away her tears. "I've been crying." "I understand," an older gentlemen said to her, wiping his eyes as well. "Me too."
Their paroxysm of tears weren't flowing over something heartbreaking or sad. They had just witnessed one of musical theatre's strongest anthems--"I Am What I Am"--performed so brilliantly that it made them cry. The song is one of Jerry Herman's supremely crafted numbers, perhaps his finest moment as a lyricist and composer, and the number is a plea for unapologetic individualism and respect. It ranks with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" as the greatest Act One solo closer in the annals of musical theatre. The song is so well known that it has almost become a cliché, for a while as overdone as "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. So when the hairs on the back of my neck went up in this current production, and I suddenly got the case of goose bumps and felt that I was hearing the song for the very first time, something has obviously gone amazingly right.
I guess it matters who sings this anthem. If done right, "I Am What I Am" can still move you, shake you, chill you and thrill you. In the Carrollwood Players' production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, it is certainly done right.
Much of the thanks must go to the actor playing Albin, the hysterical drag performer at the center of the show who sings it, in response to learning that the straight son he has helped raise needs to deny his existence in order to impress the staunch anti-gay conservative parents of the son's fiancée. The entire act leads to this breathtaking number. The actor in question, Michael Silvestri, is a godsend. He has made this production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES a must-see. There are plenty of good things in the show (and some questionable ones as well), but his work is nothing short of extraordinary. It's a performance that should be talked about, raved about, and enthusiastically promoted when local awards are given out at the end of the year.
Silvestri is splendid in all of his songs (words and music by Jerry Herman; book by Harvey Fierstein). In "A Little More Mascara," Albin's philosophy of drag, Silvestri sings it slower than usual, more of a torch song than a belting drag doctrine. (I especially appreciated Silvestri's "I Dream of Jeannie" reference in the middle of the song.) And Albin's attempts at acting manly in Act Two, a la John Wayne, is a sight to behold...he walks like Stan Laurel, Dick Van Dyke and Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks all rolled together. He's often hilarious, sad at times, but always in love with his husband, Georges, always in character, and always someone for the audience to cheer. When he's onstage, all seems right with the world.
Even though the show was rather sloppy on the night I saw it, the production boasts an all-around fine cast, with Silvestri at the top of the heap. Not far behind is Tom Bronson, who is quite sturdy and strong as Georges, owner of the La Cage club. The part isn't as show-stopping as Albin/Zaza (what part is?), but Bronson is quite good with a powerful voice. That power sometimes drowns out the sound of the piano, but Bronson makes a perfect straight man (for lack of a better term) to Albin's hysterics; you believe in their relationship and that they've been together for many years. And the Georges/Albin duet of "Song on the Sand (Reprise)" was quite moving with incredible harmonies.
Marc Sanders is like a burst of energy every time he ventures onstage as Jacob, Albin's butler who prefers being called a maid. Although he tried too hard sometimes for my tastes (comedy is hard, but it should look easy), Sanders had the audience in stitches, going for broke like a poker player going all-in, so unabashedly and enjoyably over the top.
Felipe A. Olivero, as Georges and Albin's son, Jean-Michel, has a nice singing voice, pleasant to the ear, but he must project himself more, find in his character something more than just "the straight guy getting married." As his fiancée, Hillary Lusignan shows a lot of promise and pizzazz. And Rick Prada and Val Sanford are perfect foils as the archconservative Monsieur and Madame Dindon.
The Les Cagelles at the La Cage nightclub are a motley crew, more in line with the Kit Kat Club of Cabaret than glitzy dancers of the drag hotspot in Jerry Herman Land. There are a handful of them, and their dances (choreographed by Jarrett Koski) were quite energetic and fun, but also quite sloppy. Sometimes their routines looked so messy that the audience questioned whether or not they were intended to be out of sync. But one of these Les Cagelles stood out--the remarkable Topher Warren as Hannah. I've seen Warren in various shows with M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa (Spring Awakening, Cabaret), and his work here was outrageously fantastic, full of life as he uses his imposing presence and comic skills to bring Hannah to life.
There were plenty of issues with the production. Some missed lines, some stumbled lyrics, sometimes a lack of energy and precision in some of the larger musical numbers. Also, since the actors are not wearing microphones in the intimate theatre, they should not face upstage when singing portions of their songs; Herman's brilliant words get lost. But the leads are so strong, the songs so catchy, and the story so substantial in this day and age (still!), that the audience winds up forgiving any shortcomings.
Director R. James Faurote has expertly guided a well-paced production. The set changes are eye-blink fast for the most part, and the show certainly flows. A lone piano provides the musical accompaniment (thanks to the talented fingers of Charlie Gilmer; Rob Nicholson was the Music Director), and this gives LA CAGE AUX FOLLES a more somber atmosphere than usual, not the party a full robust orchestra provides. But don't worry, it works. With the lack of a full set--set pieces are brought in, and there's a low-rent "La Cage" sign created with a string of lights--it turns out to be a rather no frills affair.
But the show has so much heart and soul that it should be required viewing. Especially to the real world Dindons who just don't understand that freedom means letting people, no matter who they happen to love, be who they want to be. LA CAGE AUX FOLLES celebrates this. So join the party and be prepared to be entertained and moved. And make sure to bring some Kleenex, just in case you, too, can't hold back the tears after the power of Silvestri's "I Am What I Am" at the end of Act One.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES plays at the Carrollwood Players mainstage until April 8th. For tickets, please call (813) 265-4000.