Goodspeed's 'La Cage aux Folles' captivates

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The musical "La Cage aux Folles" is playing the Goodspeed Opera House through September, and here's what you should know ...

Timely topics: "La Cage" might be 32 years old, but, boy, does it hit the current zeitgeist, considering how transgenderism and same-sex marriage pop up in the headlines. The characters here aren't transgender — they're tranvestites — but the notion of dealing with bigotry over either of those subjects or over gay marriage feels just as fresh now. I mean, the "La Cage" showtune "I Am What I Am" could be Caitlin Jenner's theme song.

Good stuff: Even discounting the timeliness factor, "La Cage" is blessed with strong material. Jerry Herman has fashioned some of his strongest showtunes for "La Cage" — which is saying something for the guy known for "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame." The numbers make an undeniable impression, from the poignant "Look Over There" to the rousing "Best of Times." The book, meanwhile, which Harvey Fierstein wrote based on Jean Poiret's play, melds saucy humor with real emotion and substance.

Plot points: "La Cage's" main characters, Georges and Albin, have been romantic and work partners for years, with Georges the host and Albin the star of a drag nightclub in St. Tropez. Trouble arises when the now-24-year-old son they raised together (he was result of Georges' one-night-stand with a woman) announces he's going to wed. The problem is, his fiancee's father is an ardently conservative figure who is leading the charge to close drag clubs in the area. So the son wants Albin to make himself scarce when the future-in-laws visit and to tone down the home decor. (And, yes, "Birdcage" fans, that Robin Williams-Nathan Lane movie was based on the same source material as "La Cage.")

Taking the leads: Jamison Stern gets the plum role here of Albin, who's a diva with all the theatrics and the charm that implies. Stern makes the most of the acting opportunity, conveying the kindness and loving nature living beneath the character's histrionic exterior. When Stern trumpets "I Am What I Am" at the end of the first act as a defiant anthem of self-acceptance, it's A Moment. James Lloyd Reynolds provides solid support in the much-less-flashy role of Georges. He is the straight man (if you'll pardon the phrase) to Stern's humorously melodramatic Albin.

Welcome to the club: In musicals, the "show within the show" conceit can feel forced and can lack a real payoff. In "La Cage," though, the nightclub performance scenes serve up some of the most thrillingly entertaining parts of the show. There's the can-can (more on that later). There's the bird-cage number, accented by cool lighting and avian-inspired moves. There's Albin's very funny comedy routine (in his Zaza stage persona), as he talks directly to the audience and briefly slips into a little Streisand and Dietrich for good entertainment measure.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls: When the curtain first went up at the performance I attended and revealed the Cagelles standing onstage, all dolled up in Monroe-esque glamor — shimmering white gowns, flouncy boas, picture-perfect hair and makeup — theatergoers gave out a little gasp and broke into applause. But that was just the start. The Cagelles — the "La Cage" chorus dancers — don't just look good. They're dynamic performers, too. Their can-can is an electrifying frolic, as they execute ridiculously high kicks and back flips in Ralph Perkins' choreography. Throughout the show, these men and one woman cycle through awesome outfits, often shining in sequins and spangles and donning high heels and higher hair. While we're at it, let's give props to Marc Adam Rampmeyer, who did the hair, wig and makeup design here. Fabulous.

Crowd pleaser: Cedric Leiba Jr. bubbles with over-the-top theatricality as Georges and Albin's maid (he prefers to be called the maid rather than the butler), and, boy, talk about an audience favorite. Every time Leiba comes onstage, you can sense the crowd grinning, gearing up to laugh at his latest sassy comeback or waggish facial expression.

Let's hear it for Team "Cage"!: Director Rob Ruggiero displays a deft touch, making sure things have emotional weight where needed and fizzy fun where required. Speaking of fun, Michael McDonald brings just that to the costumes, from a dominatrix leather get-up to glittering-in-the-lights gowns. Michael Schweikardt goes for pink and lavish in the scenic design, with Georges and Albin's apartment (complete with expansive windows) unfolding cleverly from the nightclub set.

If you go

What: "La Cage aux Folles"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Through Sept. 10; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays

Tickets: Start at $27, prices subject to change based on availability

Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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