By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
There is a sparkle that emanates, not just because of the outward snazzy sequined
outfits and shimmery set in New Line Theatre’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” but also inward
from the all-male drag chorus, Les Cagelles. Their unbridled enthusiasm for a
show celebrating “Be Yourself” is obvious, and underneath their wigs and cosmetic
enhancements, it’s endearing.

In fact, one strongly feels the liberation of the drag chorus, supporting players and in the tour-de-force performance from Zachary Allen Farmer as the drag diva Zaza/Albin. That palpable sense of freedom is one of the production’s most enduring qualities.

Set in the 1980s on the French Riviera, Georges (Robert
Doyle) and Albin (Farmer) have lived as a married couple for years and work
together – Georges runs the nightclub downstairs and Albin is the star
performer Zaza. They have raised the now-grown Jean-Michel (Kevin Corpuz) as
their son since birth, in their own version of a loving nuclear family. Biologically,
he’s Georges’ son, born from a one-night dalliance with a woman who has chosen
not to be an integral factor in the boy’s life.

When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to Anne (Zora Vredeveld), her
ultra-conservative parents, politician dad Dindon (Kent Coffel) and mom (Mara
Bollini), are invited to dinner, prompting panic, for fear of exposing their ‘alternative’
lifestyle to disapproval, and ultimately, difficulties for Jean-Michel.

The ensuing melodrama and potential disasters are more akin
to an episode of “I Love Lucy” – and it’s all because of trying to hide who
they really are. But then, what the hell – dignity eventually reigns. In the
meantime, wackiness ensues for plenty of side-splitting laughs, with co-directors’
Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s deft touch.

Focusing on characters who are loud, proud and know who they are is the hallmark of “La Cage Aux Folles” in all its art forms, from the hilarious 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, to the French film adaptation in 1978 to the Tony-winning Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical in 1983 to the American movie version in 1996 “The Birdcage” to the Tony-winning Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010.

It’s not a new view, by any means. You would think by now,
people wouldn’t have to keep defending themselves, but homophobia still exists
in the most insidious and cruel ways in the 21st century. Therefore,
“La Cage Aux Folles” remains timely, and important, and most importantly, fun.

As always, “La Cage” boldly stands up to hypocrisy, ignorance and self-righteous prigs with sharp social commentary wrapped in light-hearted comedy and hummable music. This delectable confection as a crowd-pleaser is a brilliant offense, and Fierstein’s smart script is redolent with both zingers and heartfelt moments.

But this cast emphasizes it with their own perceptible
feeling of family, that intangible quality that sells the show, and underlined
by the confident directors.

Zora Vredeveld, Kevin Corpuz, Kent Coffel and Mara Bollini. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer triumphantly leads this family in one of his finest performances. The actor, with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle nominations spanning seven years, has long since proven his versatility. He has been moving before – as the loner in “The Night of the Living Dead” and the slighted genius Leo Szilard in “Atomic,” and charming — the protective dad in “The Zombies of Penzance” and befuddled Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in “Anything Goes,” and comical as the iconoclast “Butkowski” and villain in “Celebration,” but the high-wire demands of Zaza/Albin go beyond the physical and present the biggest challenge.

Farmer is believable as this temperamental drama queen,
both in carriage and conviction. He looks fabulous, rocking the outfits – especially
that gorgeous lilac gown in the show-stopping “I Am What I Am,” notably after a
real-life 163-lb. weight loss. He projects effeminate airs, but not in a campy,
cartoonish way – they are organic to his character.

Because he isn’t merely window-dressing, Farmer’s transparency
showing the quicksilver mood swings — the hurt, the love and the defiance — ring
true. That makes him genuinely affecting as a transvestite man, while pushed to
the sidelines by convention, who refuses to be a cliché.

Robert Doyle and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Farmer is so sensational that perhaps Georges suffers in
comparison. As written, the part is in the parlance of a ‘straight man’ in a
comedy duo, and Robert Doyle is rather bland in the role, more in the shadow of
the very flamboyant characters. A few of the early songs seem a little shaky –
the duet “With You on My Arm” and “Song on the Sand,” but it could have been a
lower range issue on opening night. In the second act, “Look Over There” was
much more assertive.

The young engaged couple – Corpuz and Vredeveld – also are
secondary to the daffy proceedings because of the big personalities unleashed
here. They have a sweet dance interlude and competently convey their roles, but
really, the focus is pulled more towards the outrageous goings-on.

Tielere Cheatem as Jacob. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.As the mercurial butler Jacob, Tielere Cheatem is dandy cavorting
in whirlwind prima donna mode. Strutting like a peacock, all attitude and
motion, Cheatem is a nimble laugh-riot making numerous scene-stealing entrances
in a procession of increasingly over-the-top outfits. His comic timing is
impressive.

When a pompous bigoted politician is set up for comeuppance, you know good humor will result, and the expressive Coffel milks it for laughs. And Bollini, as the snobbish wife and mother, is a good sport.

Both also play progressive restaurateurs M. and Madame
Renaud, and their “Masculinity” scene giving Albin tips on how to be macho is a
standout.

Lindsey Jones and Zak Farmer. Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Lindsey Jones is used effectively as Jacqueline, a chic
restaurant owner whose place is the setting for some fireworks and several
terrific numbers – “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Best of Times.”

As previously mentioned, the spirited Les Cagelles are a
high point with their ebullience and energy — Jake Blonstein, Dominic
Dowdy-Windsor, Evan Fornachon, Tim Kaniecki, Clayton Humburg and Ian McCreary are
gleeful as real accomplished showmen.

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg.Fornachon, as the dominatrix Hanna, is quite comfortable
cracking a whip. A running gag is his ‘physical’ relationship with nightclub stage
manager Francis (Joel Hackbarth).

As a cohesive cast, it does not matter who’s really gay or
straight, all are convincing and display a commitment to their characters by
not relying on superficial stereotypes.

Behind the scenes are several unsung heroes – namely, stellar costume designer Sarah Porter, whose work is stunning. She also guided the make-up and wig applications with outstanding results.

Sara Rae Womack and Michelle Sauer choreographed the peppy musical numbers, moving Les Cagelles well in the provided space.

Nicolas Valdez’ work as music director is also exceptional –
he leads the Jerry Herman score with vitality, and the vocalists enunciate the
lyrics well. Herman, who crafted such iconic shows as “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,”
succeeded here with a traditional score but with a definitive light touch.

Valdez’ band – Kelly Austermann on reeds, Ron Foster on trumpet, Tom Hanson on trombone, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Sergos on bass – is a finely tuned ensemble that created a smooth, effortless flow of upbeat tempos and poignant ballads. They are hidden behind a scrim, which worked out well.

Next to the grand “I Am What I Am,” my favorite number was “The
Best of Times,” delivered crisply as a robust, sentimental tune summing up the
show’s poignancy – and a swell sing-a-long moment.

Rob Lippert’s colorful scenic design had plenty of pizzazz –
a functional combination of glitzy showplace and living quarters. And his
lighting design competently alternated between daylight and nightlife. Ryan Day’s
expert sound design is consistently good.

There is an obvious joy and compassion in this work, and because everyone involved is having such a good time, it carries over to the audience. After all, love is love is love is love.

None of us need permission to be who we are, but “La Cage Aux Folles” reminds us that we are all free to be you and me. And that’s mighty fine any time.

Photo by Jill Ritter LIndbergNew Line Theatre presents “La Cage Aux Folles” March 1 through March 23, Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District. For tickets, visit Metrotix.com or call 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.com

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Science Fiction, meet Musical Comedy, New Line Theatre-style, with a touch of Midnight Movie Madness.
Artistic Director Scott Miller co-directs musicals with Mike Dowdy-Windsor, and has certainly proven over the years that he beats to a different drummer. Hence, this calling card — an original and clever “The Zombies of Penzance,” where he makes the walking dead kick in a chorus line and put moves on sheltered single ladies.
These silly components make this quirky world premiere a dip into Monty Python territory. Miller has substituted singing and dancing zombies for musical comedy pirate characters, using the same structure of Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, which makes it funnier. It may be one-joke, but it’s laugh-out-loud fun.

Turns out zombies have personalities in sync with pirates! Stranger things have happened, so just go with it, and enjoy the playful spirit. I mean, songs have titles like “Eat Their Flesh,” “Poor Walking Dead,” and “Hail, Zombies!” We can’t be serious, no matter how straight the characters play their predicaments.
The 1879 comic opera “The Pirates of Penzance,” by the British team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, was given new life in a Joseph Papp 1981 revival that won Kevin Kline the Tony as the swashbuckling Pirate King. It spawned many imitations and parodies, and a 1983 feature film. Here, you think of both those cartoonish roles and the roaming zombies that rule movie and TV screens, particularly this time of year.
The flimsy 19th century plot should be played for laughs – Frederic, 21, is released from his apprenticeship from tender-hearted pirates, but a technicality – he is a Leap Day baby — means he must serve another 63 years, but his true-love Mabel agrees to wait. We’re not talking “The Great Gatsby” level tragic romance.
Now, New Line has rewired the “Slave of Duty” to be a fresh zombie! Frederic is a new flesh eater, a pawn in the other zombie maneuvers as they aim their mark on Major-General Stanley and his nubile brood.
Let the wackiness ensue with Miller’s smart book and quick-witted lyrics, using Gilbert’s template. Listen carefully for laugh-out-loud humor, utilizing contemporary snarkiness.
St. Louis composer and orchestrator John Gerdes reconstructed Sullivan’s music, and it’s a mighty fine re-working. In music director Nicolas Valdez’s capable hands, he conducts a snazzy nine-piece band, including Gerdes on French horn, Lea Gerdes on reeds, Joseph Hendricks on bassoon, Emily Trista Lane on cello, Twinda Murry on violin and Kely Austermann/Hope Walker on reeds. Valdez is on keyboards. Their efforts are exquisite – love those strings!
Dowdy-Windsor, an oft-nominated director with Miller for St. Louis Theater Circle Awards (and winner for “Bonnie & Clyde”), also has a keen eye and sharp attention to detail.
The pair has moved the cast around – you hear the flesh-eaters before the heavily made-up zombies shamble through the audience to the Stanley home. Yet, this is not intended to be slick staging, but a motley crew invasion with a rag-tag feel.
Those dastardly decaying dudes have their eyes on Stanley’s bevy of beauties. However, Major-General Stanley, who professes to be a zombie, is actually a great zombie hunter.
Zak Farmer is as sharp as ever as the fearless father, but what stands out is his impeccable delivery of the difficult songs, particularly the often parodied “Major-General’s Song,” which is now “Modern Era Zombie Killer,” and “When the World Went Bad.” His impressive performance indicates how deceptively hard farcical fun is.
The charade will be up soon enough, but in the meantime, romantic entanglements are on the minds of those frisky young ones, who wish they were not at a disadvantage.
Dominic Dowdy-WindsorWith his strong voice, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor delivers superb vocals as the Zombie King, including the solo “Oh Better Far, to Live as Dead,” and his many duets and company numbers. Given the confines of the part, he can’t swashbuckle like the role model Pirate King, and I wish he could have more swagger.
Sean Michael and Melissa FelpsSean Michael, as the dullard Frederic, and Melissa Felps, as a rather colorless Mabel, are saddled with a drippy romance that’s the show’s centerpiece. Voices are fine and so is their earnestness, but those roles remain insipid. Their lack of chemistry doesn’t help either. (The 1981 revival starred Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt).
So, the supporting cast’s efforts enliven the puffy piece.
The ladies play the giggly girly magnets up to a point, then reveal they’re no helpless ingenues. That’s a nice twist.
With Lindsay Jones as Kate, Christina Rios as Edith, Kimi Short as Isabel and Mara Bollini, Melanie Kozak and Sarah Porter as other daughters, you knew they weren’t going to be powder puffs, but amp up their grrrl power. Armed already with gorgeous voices, they are demure to a point, but then turn into warrior princesses.
Kent Coffel goes all in as Zombie Sam, playing everything for laughs – and he’s a delight. Other goofy zombies Robert Doyle, Matt Hill, Tim Kaniecki and Kyle Kelesoma physically turn into animated creatures.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert paid homage to George A. Romero, director of the 1968 cult classic, “The Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of zombie lore,  in his ornate home interior, a cool touch. The set has the period look, but also a show within a show accents.
Costume designer Sarah Porter has outfitted everyone in appropriate garb for the tonal shifts — the frilly feminine dresses and petticoats for the girls and the natty Zombie attire for the guys. Kenneth Zinkl’s lighting design emphasizes the bewitching tone while Ryan Day’s sound work makes all those fast-paced lyrics easily understood.
These zombies might not terrify, after all, but they certainly provide a fun, frothy look in a lighter vein — at both vintage opera and the horror archetypes who proliferate this time of year. Barbara, they are coming — only armed with songs, dances and feelings.
One can’t resist the pull of brainy and talented people who set out for a road not taken before.
“The Zombies of Penzance” is presented by New Line Theatre Sept. 27 – Oct. 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. at The Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Arts Center. For more information, visit newlinetheatre.com and for tickets, call 314-534-1111 or go to MetroTix.com
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg