Review: La Cage Aux Folles

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Christopher Sieber may strut upon the stage in high heels and a feather boa, but it’s George Hamilton who’s sort of a drag in an otherwise effective revival of La Cage Aux Folles. And that’s a shame, because Sieber is so talented and so winning that he pretty much pulls off the evening in spite of the unfortunate stunt casting of Hamilton, who’s simply an ill-fit for a musical theater role that requires two big solos and excellent showmanship. Hamilton is certainly game, but La Cage is, at heart, about relationships, and there’s never the proper chemistry between Hamilton’s George, the ‘straight-acting’ and debonair owner of the ‘Birdcage’ nightclub, and Sieber’s Albin, who regularly performs as his altera ego [sic] ZaZa.  Particularly in the first act, Hamilton’s book scenes—penned by Harvey Fierstein—seem slow and creaky.

But when Terry Johnson’s Tony Award-winning direction concentrates on performance, rather than text, the evening soars. This is apparent not only in the ebullient production numbers featuring ‘Les Cagelles’—six high-kicking drag performers—but in Albin’s own performance of gender, both on-stage and off-. It seems that Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney), the accidental child from one of George’s drunken liaisons, has fallen in love with the daughter of a local, anti-gay politician (Bernard Sheredy); Jean-Michel thus hatches a plan to cloak his true and loving parents—Albin and George—under the guise of a ‘normal,’ heterosexual family unit. As in any good farce, the plan goes hilariously awry; but unlike most farces, La Cage offers up some real pathos, particularly in Albin’s ferocious Act I closer “I Am What I Am,” still a popular gay rights anthem.

The second act mostly belongs to Sieber, even as Johnson wisely accelerates the tempo of the storyline: Sieber’s an incredibly gifted actor, and the twists of the plot allow him to use the full range of his resources. (The big reveal during “The Best of Times” is simply marvelous.) Supporting roles are well-cast—the petite Gay Marshall makes an especially good impression as a local restauranteuse—and Lynne Page’s campy choreography makes the most of a rather reduced number of Cagelles. (This stripped-down production began life in London’s tiny but increasingly prestigious Menier Chocolate Factory.) Tim Shortall’s set-within-a-set looks a little small for the gigantic space of the Majestic, but that’s a peril of any touring production; a pit combo is employed for Jerry Herman’s tuneful (if not particularly distinguished) score.

I first saw this production in Manhattan with its original “revival” cast of Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge (who, as Albin, took home the Tony Award for Best Actor); intriguingly, Sieber later took over the role of George. I don’t recall seeing in New York the pre-show drag act that’s now on view at the Majestic, one that apparently grew over time into its present form. In this pre-show act, Lili Whiteass—one of the Cagelles—works the audience with any number of off-color jokes, including riffs on Jewish lesbians and that kind of thing. I think the point is to de-sensitize “Red State” audiences to a subject that (outside of New England) might still seem shocking or horrifying: after all, La Cage opened in San Antonio just as North Carolina became the 30th state to ban same-sex marriage. The first act saw a few walkouts from Majestic patrons—I wondered if that was going to happen—but, overall, I was heartened by the audience’s enthusiastic response to what is, unexpectedly, the most topical play in Broadway Across San Antonio’s history. La Cage demonstrates (through the unlikely medium of musical comedy) that it’s impossible to disassociate anti-gay legislation from its disastrous real world--and real family--consequences. For all these reasons, we give this entertaining (if imperfect) revival a big ol’ same-sex kiss--on its beak.

--Thomas "Cagelle" Jenkins, Current Theater Critic

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