Like most mid-sized cities, Rochester only has one professional regional theater. Geva Theatre Center is a member of the League of Resident Theatres, which has just 75 theaters in 30 states. Others in town, like Rochester Broadway Theatre League, bring in professional touring shows from big cities, and still others, like Blackfriars, sometimes use professional cast and crew members. But Geva is the only theater using both equity cast and crew and an in-house staff to build and execute each production. Understandably, that raises the standard for Geva's seasons each year.
For the past 25 years as artistic director, Mark Cuddy has been perfecting the art of choosing the Geva Theatre Center season. He and his team have honed in on audience favorites, found trusted collaborators, and created and commissioned new works. In the past few years, especially, they've met with great success.
The 2019-2020 season -- Cuddy's 25th anniversary season -- begins with a show rarely performed on Rochester stages. "La Cage Aux Folles" is the story of a gay couple who owns a drag nightclub in 1980's St. Tropez. When the son of manager Georges (played by Cuddy himself) announces he's engaged to the daughter of France's most conservative politician, Georges and his partner, who is also the nightclub's star, Albin (Danny Vaccaro), strive to keep up appearances for their son's sake (naturally, chaos ensues).
"La Cage Aux Folles" translates to "The Cage of Mad Women" and is based on a 1973 French play of the same name; it also inspired the 1996 film "The Birdcage." When it opened on Broadway in 1983, it received nine Tony Award nominations and won six, including Best Musical. At its core, it's flashy, an undeniably fun night out -- albeit difficult to pull off without a talented male cast.
Fortunately, Geva's cast is more than equipped to handle the high-heeled, leather- and feather-filled dance numbers. The six Les Cagelles -- Donovan Hoffer, Kyle DuPree, Joseph Tudor, Sam Tanabe, Giovanni Da Silva, and Matthew Tiberi -- not only impress with their dance moves and drag characters, but sing numbers like "We Are What We Are" in soaring harmony. In the role of "butler" Jacob, Kevin Curtis provides standout comic relief, with spot-on timing and physical movement. As the nightclub's stage manager, Michael RJ Campbell delivers unexpected pops of humor. Rochester-based cast member Esther Winter, who plays high-maintenance restaurateur Jacqueline, also steals her share of the evening's spotlight with audience laughs and a fantastic purple dress.
Cuddy leads the cast (his second role in the past two seasons, following 2018's "Heartland") as Georges, and his acting is impressive for someone who spends most of his time on the other side of the stage. But his showmanship comes naturally (perhaps proving that those who teach, can do?). His dancing is fluid, and most of his vocals are passable, though there are a few hiccups with range and pitch in the second act.
Opposite him is Vaccaro, a seasoned La Cage performer who was in the 2011 Tony Award-winning production. Vaccaro is poignant in the role of the sensitive Albin, and he brought the audience to tears, laughter, and even a standing ovation just before intermission with the moving number "I Am What I Am."
As Jean-Michel, son to Georges and Albin, Michael Evan Williams depicts a bright-eyed, earnest, and thoroughly charming character. Even his selfishness is forgivable as he sings through "With Anne on My Arm."
Director Melissa Rain Anderson (who for the past several years has directed the popular season-opener musicals) guides the cast in an energetic, interactive two-and-a-half hours (including intermission). Choreographer Sam Hay capitalizes on the elaborate costumes by Kevin Copenhaver to create showman numbers. (The usual tap dancing is downplayed in this production.) Musical Director Don Kot and his seven-piece band are tucked away in the pit, but play an important unseen (and oft humorous) role as the band, both literally and for the fictional nightclub. Multi-dimensional, colorful scenic design by Adam Koch lends itself to several locations.
In a city the size of Rochester, many things must be considered when choosing a theatrical season. Ticket sales are important for everyday operations, but as the sole LORT theater in town, Geva is also held to standards of experimentation, entertainment, and even spectacle. "La Cage Aux Folles" has plenty of moments where it hits on these factors, but Cuddy's charm has to carry where raw ability fails. Cuddy, of course, isn't there (solely) for his talent, but to delight the masses who've been supporting Geva for years. And if there's anything Rochester loves, it's a hometown hero.