AISLE SAY New York

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

Book by Harvey Firestein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Based on the play by Jean Poiret
Directed by Terry Johnson
Starring Kelsey Grammar and Douglas Hodge
with Christine Andreas, Veanne Cox and Fred Applegate
Longacre Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

The problem I’ve often had with La Cage Aux Folles, a show of which I am quite fond, is that what the authors cited as its central issue—how the insensitivity of a gay couple’s son nearly wrecks the “marriage”—has never truly read, in any prior staging I’ve ever encountered, as that threatening. Certainly it wasn’t so in the original.


                        In part that had to do with the dramatization and musicalization itself: Son Jean-Michel announces to his “straight” (non-flamboyant) father Georges—owner of an infamous gay night club and theatre on the French Riviera—that he wants to marry Anne, the daughter of crusading arch-conservative Dindon, and needs to introduce Anne’s parents to his own. But because his “mother” is Albin, the flaming transvestite star performer of La Cage, more famous as drag-queen Zaza, Jean-Michel requests that Albin be absent for the meeting. What he sings to convince George is not an impassioned plea about the price he had to pay growing up as the adopted son of an extravagantly effeminate man, and not wanting to pay the price anew with his future—that sentiment is relegated to a few quick lines—no, he does a boulevard stroll about his girl called “With Anne on My Arm.” But, and this is not a put-down, it’s the kind of song that Jerry Herman knows how to write—the darker colors tend not to be in his palate, at least not quite in that way—so the emotional stakes are left to book scenes.


                        In part, the lack of emotional force had to do with direction. Arthur Laurents, director of the original production, provided a staging that felt, to me, utilitarian and functional, with nearly everyone but the two leads (George Hearn and Gene Barry) seeming two-dimensional. Great fun to be sure, but the family drama proved only an excuse for the comedy and farce.


                        In the new, imported production, come to Broadway from The Chocolate Factory in London, director Terry Johnson, in tailoring the show to a smaller, up-close venue, has, with his cast, imbued a kind of kitchen-sink musical theatre acting—it forsakes nothing in the way of timing or show biz savvy, yet there’s a slice-of-life detailing that allows the cast members to fill previously unfilled moments—and the balance seems, at last, what the authors really intended.


                        That said, this also presents a mild disjunct. Since slice-of-life verisimilitude is at odds with songs like “With Anne on My Arm” there are moments when the experiment feels a klik or two off the mark. They aren’t enough to compromise the joy of the event, just to keep the immersion into a different ambiance from being complete.


                        La Cage is (consciously) a slightly seedier and smaller club than it has been previously (design by Tim Shortall); and there are fewer Cagelles (the tranny dancers, costumes by Matthew Wright), and their routines are a little scruffier. But this is all to the good.


                        I wish, though, that Douglas Hodge’s Albin—originally the ostensible reason for importing the production in the first place—were as effective as the hype about him. Oh he’s an impressive and charismatic actor, to be sure, but I was constantly aware of how hard he seemed to be working to put nuance and variety into his numbers. And of course, when you’re aware of an actor at work, you’re not thinking about character.


                        However, Kelsey Grammer’s Georges is smooth, superb and just tarnished and clumsy enough under the surface—not unlike his signature TV character Frasier—to be endearing. (And it will be really interesting to revisit the production in six months, after Mr. Hodge leaves and Mr. Grammar assumes the role of Albin.)


                        The rest of the cast has likewise been selected and directed for well-rounded portraiture, with the result that formerly imprint-free roles now actually accommodate their performers’ humanistic nuances—and vice versa, with stalwarts such as Christine Andreas, Veanne Cox and Fred Applegate getting the most mileage out of the least material; and as maid-butler Jacob, Robin de Jesus does quite a bit more than that.


                        All in all, this jewel box revival is a perfect/imperfect triumph, not least because the last Broadway revival, a far less effective one, was only five years ago. You wouldn’t have thought—indeed, I think most of us wouldn’t have thought—that La Cage could be rendered that fresh and that inviting that soon. But it is. And you could have knocked me over with a boa…


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