La Cage aux Folles was a far riskier venture than most Broadway productions of the time. Despite being based on a popular French stage play and an international hit film (which would be remade as the acclaimed, English-language The Birdcage in 1995), the unabashedly pro-gay musical was opening at the height of AIDS hysteria and much resultant anti-gay sentiment. The beloved, Tony Award-winning Herman — who had scored the classics Hello, Dolly! and Mame — even had a certified panic attack prior to the show’s pre-Broadway tryout in conservative Boston.
He needn’t have worried. Happily for all concerned, La Cage aux Folles was an instant smash in both Boston and New York. It eventually won six Tonys and ran for over four years. It’s 2004 and 2010 Broadway revivals both won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, making La Cage the first show to win a record three times for best musical production. Now, the 2010 revival is making its Los Angeles debut in a tour headed by out Broadway star Christopher Sieber (a Tony nominee for his hilarious turns in Monty Python's Spamalot and as the diminutive Lord Farquuad in Shrek the Musical) and 72-year old Hollywood legend George Hamilton. It is running through July 22nd at the Pantages Theatre.
Hamilton (as tan, in-shape and perfectly coiffed as ever) plays Georges, manager and MC of a popular gay nightclub in St. Tropez. Georges is also the longtime partner of his drag revue’s star, Albin (Sieber, who played Georges during the revival's Broadway run opposite Fierstein as Albin). Also known as Zaza when performing, Albin is the more flamboyant and histrionic of the two. Their relationship is put to the test when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (a fine, attractive Michael Lowney), suddenly announces his engagement to the daughter of France’s leading family-values crusader. Before the in-laws-to-be meet over dinner, Jean-Michel demands that his birth mother be invited and Albin be put out of sight for 24 hours.
The plot, though fairly familiar now as a result of the various films’ popularity, remains fresh thanks to some tweaks from Fierstein, moments of improv by Sieber (he references Sarah Palin at one point to uproarious effect, asking Hamilton “Can you see Russia?” when Hamilton’s head briefly ends up under Zaza’s skirt) and the plot’s own inherent timeliness. The musical’s greatest strength is Herman’s score, featuring such memorable, hummable gems as “The Best of Times,” “Look Over There,” “Song on the Sand,” “A Little More Mascara,” “With You on My Arm” and, of course, the now-classic “I Am What I Am.” Sieber performs the latter anthem of gay- and self-pride more angrily than it has traditionally been done, and the result is riveting. Herman himself declared after the 1983 premiere of La Cage that he was so pleased with its success he would never write another original musical (although he did subsequently write a handful of songs for the 1996 made-for-TV movie, Mrs. Santa Claus, starring Angela Lansbury).
The revival now in LA and on tour originated in London and is on a smaller scale and more intimate than the show’s original staging. Directed by Tony-winner Terry Johnson and energetically choreographed by Lynne Page, this incarnation of La Cage has a reduced chorus and orchestra and only six gender-bending Les Cagelles. The orchestra wasn’t at its best opening night but this may have been due to adjustments necessitated by the Pantages’ cavernous space.
As is appropriate, the heart of La Cage remains the committed if frequently frustrating relationship (is there any other kind?) between its lead gay characters. Sieber has impeccable comic timing, a superb voice and is nothing but delightful as Albin/Zaza. While not the strongest singer, Hamilton’s voice is certainly pleasant enough and his dancing is impressive. Hamilton was a bit stiff opening night during his initial banter with the audience, but he loosened up as the show proper began. He and Sieber have excellent, genuine chemistry. Hamilton gets bonus points for being one of the few big-name actors of his generation to not only play a gay man respectfully and compassionately but to kiss his co-star full on the lips at the show’s climax. In the original Broadway production, nervous leads Gene Barry and George Hearn only kissed each other on the cheeks, claiming to follow “French tradition.”
Alas, as I witnessed opening night in LA, not all of today’s audience members are necessarily more comfortable than they were back in 1983 when it comes to acceptance of same-sex relationships. A heterosexual couple walked out in the middle of Act I, and several seats in my vicinity previously filled by heterosexual couples were empty when Act II began. I’d love to know which show the deserters thought they would be seeing when they purchased their tickets, perhaps the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza? More blatantly, a man seated a few rows behind me and my partner yelled out in opposition to drag performer Lily Whiteass’ pre-curtain call to legalize same-sex marriage in California. As far as American culture has come in the last 30 years, thanks in no small part to artistic works like La Cage aux Folles, we still have a way to go.
Reverend's Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.