Jason Richards in purple suit kneels at left in front of leopard-print chaise lounge. Ginger Minj as Albin is in a white satin dressing gow with feathers and a turban.
Jason Richards and Ginger Minj as Georges and Albin in Music Theater Works's La Cage aux Folles Credit: Brett Beiner

It’s been nearly 50 years since the first iteration of La Cage aux Folles flew from the nest in the form of Jean Poiret’s 1973 play of that title. Since then, there’s been a 1978 French film, remade in Hollywood in 1996 as The Birdcage (starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) and an oft-revived 1983 musical by composer Jerry Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein. The roles of middle-aged gay couple Georges and Albin—the owner and star, respectively, of a drag club in St. Tropez—have most often been played by cis men, often hetero ones. (Even noted Trump supporter Kelsey Grammer took on Georges in a 2010 Broadway revival.) But in Music Theater Works’s current production in Skokie, we get real star wattage from an authentic queer drag icon: RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Ginger Minj.

La Cage aux Folles
Through 4/3: Wed 1 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, musictheaterworks.com, $19.50-$106.

She’s the best reason to see Kyle A. Dougan’s staging. (Let’s face it: Albin is always gonna be the diva in charge even when sharing the stage with Chicago legend Honey West, who plays sympathetic restaurateur Jacqueline.) But she’s not the only one. The story of Georges and Albin trying to play it “straight” for their son, Jean-Michel, who wants to marry Anne, the daughter of a far-right politician (think Jean Le Pen), has moments that feel dated. But then we remember the existential attacks on trans people happening in state legislatures across the country, and it’s relevant all over again. 

Not that the show wears its politics on its fabulous, feathered, and spangled sleeves (although a line about leaving “no Texas governor undefeated” sure got applause at the opening). What makes it more than just a cross-dressing farce about Albin trying to appease the rigid sensibilities of Jean-Michel’s visiting future in-laws (by pretending to be first an uncle, then Jean-Michel’s long-absent mother) is the demand for respect, dignity, and recognition that drives Minj’s Albin even (or especially) in the most over-the-top moments. We see the pain of trying to “pass” as a straight man, and the anguish of fearing that, despite raising Jean-Michel as his own, Albin isn’t seen as “family.” And of course in the first act showstopper, “I Am What I Am,” we see Albin defiantly claiming all his identities in full-throated glory.

Minj is well matched by Jason Richards’s Georges, who is equal parts desperate schemer and starstruck lover. (The tenderly nostalgic “Song on the Sand” is one of the touching highlights of the show.) The dance numbers, choreographed by Mercury Theater Chicago’s artistic director Christopher Carter, fill the thrust stage normally used by Northlight Theatre with sass and spectacle. (This show made me particularly glad that Music Theater Works moved out of the old proscenium space at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium; it’s hard to imagine the full range of color and glitz translating as well there.) Project Runway vet Justin LeBlanc’s costumes and Alexis Bevels’s work-of-art wigs on the club’s chorus line add visual zest and wit to a show that embraces both star power and sentiment with equal passion.