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Theater review: 'La Cage' will win your heart

"La Cage aux Folles" opens Thursday at the Duluth Playhouse. Photo by Nicole Modeen Photography

Musicals are often about falling in love, but rarely about being in love. "La Cage aux Folles," which opens April 20 at the Playhouse, is about the latter.

There is something wonderful about seeing two people so deeply in love, and even with all the hysterical drag queens running around on stage, ultimately "La Cage aux Folles" is all about heart.

Jean-Michel (Matias Valero) arrives home engaged to Anne Dindon (Angela Shields). Unfortunately, Anne's father (Michael Kraklio) is head of the "Tradition, Family and Morality Party," whose mission is to close the local transvestite clubs.

Since Jean-Michel's father Georges (Shad Olsen) is the gay owner of just such a club where his life-long partner, Albin (Tod Petersen), is the star drag queen "Zaza," this is a recipe for complete and utter disaster.

Jean-Michel wants Albin out of sight and out of mind when the families meet, and as charming as his "With Anne On My Arm" might be, we know the boy is wrong to treat his dear maman so.

When Petersen completes his transformation from Albin into Zaza at the end of "A Little More Mascara," I swear that if you showed up at that point, you would never guess you were looking at a drag queen.

The biggest question in this extremely entertaining musical is whether you are going to fall more in love with Albin or Zaza.

The title track has Zaza charming the pants off of the audience — at that point, you have definitely gotten your money's worth with this show — but it is Albin who stops the show and sings the heartbreakingly defiant "I Am What I Am" in the wake of his family's betrayal. This is a powerful musical moment, on par with the first-act endings of "Gypsy" or "Dreamgirls," and Petersen makes it absolutely unforgettable.

Based on the 1973 French play (and not the film) of the same name by Jean Poiret, the musical version has a book by Harvey Fierstein ("Torch Song Trilogy") with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman ("Hello, Dolly!") and won the Tony for Best Musical in 1983 and two more for Best Revival in 2004 and 2010.

As much as the wine bottles on the stage side tables, the mood is established by Beth Brophy's accordion playing before the show (accordions are quintessentially French). Using les Cagelles as stage hands turned tableaus was a nice touch by director/choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell.

Olsen is at least a decade younger than Georges, but sporting a beard for gravitas and making everything slightly more up tempo, he makes this "younger" version work. This time "Song on the Sand" is not misty nostalgia but a clearly vivid and omnipresent memory.

As the "maid," Garrett Passer's Jacob is outrageously flamboyant, which serves to distance Albin from the fringe. Sara Wabrowetz's Jaqueline gets to add her power vocals to a couple of Petersen's numbers, and Christine Winkler Johnson has fun when Marie Dindon finally gets to bust loose from her stifling husband.

But either way, Petersen is going to win your heart.

If you go

• What: "La Cage aux Folles"

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through May 7

• Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

• Tickets: $32 adults, $27 youth/students. Call (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org

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