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Theater Review: "La Cage aux Folles" at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

A snapshot of love underground

Dee Dee Beckley’s decorated Styrofoam heads will be on display during the run of “La Cage aux Folles” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. Courtesy photo

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"queen noun \'kw?"n\ 1a: the wife or widow of a king....3b: a goddess or a thing personified as a female and having supremacy in a specified realm...8 often disparaging: a male homosexual; especially: an effeminate one"

I mean no disparagement whatsoever when I say La Cage aux Folles is a musical populated mostly by drag queens. Its two leads are a gay male couple, Georges and Albin. They run a drag cabaret in Saint-Tropez, France, circa 1983. That was the year Allan Carr, producer of the film adaptation of Grease, saw the 1978 French movie version of Jean Poiret's 1973 farcical, non-musical play and decided to tell its story on Broadway. Confused? It gets more complex yet. The French movie was a massive international hit that spawned two sequels; meanwhile, the original play was readapted for American audiences as the Robin Williams-Nathan Lane vehicle The Birdcage.

We heard someone in Tacoma Musical Playhouse's opening-night audience say La Cage aux Folles is The Birdcage in French, but that's not true. The French expression for birdcage is cage d'oiseaux or, for larger versions, volière. No, La Cage aux Folles means The Cage of the Crazy Women, with an asterix: folles is also French idiom roughly equivalent to the "often disparaging" noun cited above.

Let it be said first and foremost this is one admirably ambitious production. It demonstrated often that it needed more rehearsals, but it's also an obvious labor of love so I bet those glitches resolve themselves soon. Costumers Grace Stone and Margot Webb, with nine assistants and "special costumer" Linda Pressey, fill the stage with one fabulous femme fatale after another - plus period-appropriate '80s suits, a lesser but welcome detail. Judy Lantz and Don Miller contribute swooning French reeds to the memorable "Song in the Sand." Jeffrey Bassett, by day an attorney specializing in child protection cases, makes a vulnerable, sympathetic Albin. Andrew Fry walks a fine line as Georges, playing him just straight enough to "pass" for, well, French. Les Cagelles, some female, most in drag, are terrific throughout. (It took us most of an act to recognize Bruce Haasl, TMP's resident tech director, as Bitelle.) Dana Johnson makes the most of two small roles, Mme. Dindon and Mme. Renaud.

This isn't one of those shows a director can just put up in 21st-century dress. It's a Kodachrome snapshot of a time when drag was queen, gay love was mostly underground, and two men kissing on stage was an act of defiance. It reminds us how far we've come in one generation, as I'm told La Cage has already booked full houses in the Gritty City. Like Rent, it elicits nostalgic appeal from what was actually a not-so-great time for "one love." No, I'd say "the best of times is now."

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, 8 p.m. Friday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday through Sunday, through June 8, Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 7116 Sixth Ave. E., Tacoma, $20-$29, 253.565.6867

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