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Feather-light musical has a big heart



From the moment the audience members hear the deep male voices of the chorus -- brazenly singing the proud anthem "We Are What We Are" as the men strut and kick their way across a glittery stage in heavy makeup and slinky silk pajamas -- they realize they might be in for a rather off-center and risque evening, filled with double entendres and suggestive sexual repartee. They will not be disappointed.

In fact, for the next two hours theatergoers will enjoy the riotous and decidedly offbeat world of Georges and Albin and all their non-gender-specific comic cohorts, in the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical "La Cage aux Folles," now at the Mark Two Dinner Theatre.

The love story of an aging homosexual couple might not seem a likely candidate for an evening's entertainment. To be sure, the plot of "La Cage" is light and frothy. But as the play weaves itself through Herman's melodic score, it gives its outrageous characters ample opportunity for moving musical testaments to fidelity and self-acceptance, as well as occasions for broad physical and situational comedy.

Anchored by the brilliant performance of Michael Walters as the over-the-hill drag queen Zaza, "La Cage" is a theatrical tour de force. Songs like "I Am What I Am" and the love duet "Song on the Sand," impeccably rendered by Walters and Frank McClain in splendid baritone hormony, both esalt and ennouble love in all its varieties and hues.

"La Cage" was, in its earliest incarnation, a gentle if somewhat defiant evocation of the gay demimonde. Its suggestion that homosexuals could also be loving and faithful members of society was a message that needed to be heard and heeded by the straight majority. Today, thankfully, much has changed in terms of acceptance and understanding. "La Cage" can now be enjoyed as a delightful piece of musical comedy as well as a lesson in tolerance.

So while it celebrates life, "La Cage" also revels in the world of transvestite performance and comedy. Dance numbers abound, and the muscular chorus members dazzle us with their moves, culminating in a wild and hilarious can-can, acrobatically staged by choreographer Jillian Johnson.

One of the evening's highlights is Walters' uproarious and freewheeling solo tête-à-tête with the audience. Clearly in his element, Walters delightfully vamps like Mae West in her prime. Dressed in a hip-hugging gown and wielding an oversized walking-stick, he chats, poses and swaggers to a rising tide of laughter, tossing off one-liners and bawdy jokes in a rapid-fire falsetto.

In addition, the cabaret setting gives director/producer Mark Howard liberal excuse to display dozens of his shop's stunning costumes, replete with tons of feathers, boxes of sequins, and more sparkles than a parade at Disney. As Walters says in his monologue, "I couldn't decide what to wear tonight, so I wore everything!"

Abetting Walters is McClain in the part of the competent and sturdy Georges. His calm and heartfelt performance is the perfect counterpoint to Walters' hysterical and emotionally explosive characterization.

Other fine performances are given by Samuel Lassiter as the butler/maid Jacob, and Nick Barnes as Georges' starry-eyed son, Jean-Michel. Mark Two favorite Ann Hurst also appears as the flighty and browbeaten Mme. Dindon, mother of Jean-Michel's fiancee.

"La Cage Aux Folles" is an eccentric, sweet and uplifting comedy with terrific dancing and great songs. Enjoy it for its over-the-top antics, and love it for its message of tolerance and optimism.

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