Play gets up close with auds despite expansion

Many a tiny downtown delight has wound up looking worse for wear after being repositioned in the West End. But that’s clearly not the case for the triumphant arrival at the Playhouse Theater of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s “La Cage aux Folles.”

The trick was holding on to what made this revival so smart in its initial fringe outing earlier this year. The production papered over the cracks — chasms, more like it — in Harvey Fierstein‘s heart-on-sleeve but schematic book by adding front-row tables and spilling the action out into its 160-seat venue so auds felt they actually were in the intimate club of the show’s title.

Despite expansion to a 777-seater, set designer Tim Shortall has retained that intimacy. A row of tables again lines the front of a stage-within-the-stage, which, together with Nick Richings‘ adroit lighting, has the welcome effect of tying auds more closely to the action than they expect.

The production’s other selling point is to ditch the traditional illusory approach of having boy dancers pass as glamorous showgirls. Thanks to Lynne Page‘s taut choreography, there’s never a moment’s doubt that these startlingly tall and muscled “Cagelles” are fierce drag queens.

Among the newcomers, Denis Lawson is a nimble delight in the less showy role of straight-acting Georges, but the best news is that versatile Douglas Hodge is back as Albin.

Instead of riding the sweet sentimentality of an aging but resourceful male wife and de facto mother, Hodge plumbs emotional depths of defensive vulnerability, extravagant hope and immensely expressive tenderness.

Performing Albin’s act, he shimmies over the border between sweet filth and true innocence, lit up with come-hither glow and replete with sudden vocal spoofs of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. In the character’s offstage scenes, he poleaxes the audience into rapt silence by the hurt — and love — he feels. Not bad for someone who, last year, played the lead in gore-fest “Titus Andronicus” at Shakespeare’s Globe.

There’s an equally eye-widening range of emotion on offer in another recent London opening that pits religious fundamentalism against science and the power of literature.

Carl Miller‘s “Red Fortress,” at the Unicorn Theater, intertwines the tale of Jewish engineer Luis, who innocently makes a device that will be used as weaponry, with that of young Muslim girl Rabia who believes in mysticism, and white Christian boy Iago, struggling to escape his upbringing.

Set in a Spanish town under siege from the Crusades in 1491, the play is by turns bold, amusingly self-deprecating, shrewd and smartly provoking as it takes on war, death, sexual politics, idealism and philosophical inheritance from one’s parents. Oh, and did I mention it’s written for audiences aged 10 and older?

Miller’s refusal to patronize young theatergoers by soft-pedaling ideas is as invigorating as it is audacious. He’s also helped by charismatic performances from a defiant Gehane Strehler as hopeful Rabia and, in particular, spry Jack Blumenau‘s intelligently focused Luis.

Blumenau’s crisp energy goes a long way toward revving up the otherwise sagging pace of Tony Graham‘s earnest production — far too in thrall to a slow-moving, if beautiful, live score from African composer Tunde Jegede. Happily, the quality of Miller’s ambitious script is never in doubt.

 By contrast, the script of “Matilde di Shabran” makes “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” look like Ibsen. But that’s only to be expected when the work in question is an opera by Rossini unseen at Covent Garden for 154 years.

The arrant preposterousness of the libretto means that some of Mario Martone‘s Royal Opera House production is so hammy you could serve it up as Easter dinner.

But the casting alone has caused a box office stampede. Juan Diego Florez is the Peruvian tenor world-famous for stopping the show to encore a shooting gallery of high C’s in the Royal Opera/Met co-production of “La Fille du Regiment” earlier this year.

He flings himself recklessly up and down Rossini’s rapid scales with stratospheric top notes — as well as the double winding staircases of Sergio Tramonti‘s imposing set — as if running through nothing so difficult as “Happy Birthday.”

Exhilarating though that is, even Florez is outsung by pert Aleksandra Kurzak, whose vertiginous coloratura induced roars from the opening night crowd. All of which proves, once again, it’s the performances that count.

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