Low-Key La Cage Still Triumphs

la-cage-broadwayLa Cage Aux Folles

"The Best of Times" has always been one of my favorite Jerry Herman songs. I love the way it develops, from the yearning and even a bit of melancholy in its early stages, then slowly building until it ultimately explodes into a joyous celebration. Even in the less than perfect 2004 revival, "Best of Times" was one of the high points. But I don't know if the number has ever been as glorious as it was in the new revival now playing on Broadway, where it flat out stopped the show cold, and quite deservedly.

La Cage, of course, was written by Herman and Harvey Fierstein. It is based on a popular French play, and it involves Georges and Albin, a longtime gay couple. Georges runs a notorious Saint-Tropez night spot, La Cage Aux Folles, featuring a chorus of drag performers, known as Les Cagelles; the club's star performer is Albin, who, on stage and in drag, goes by ZaZa. Complications ensue when Georges' son from a one-night-stand many years earlier comes home and announces he is engaged to the daughter of a right-wing, anti-gay politician who heads the Tradition, Family and Morality party. Obviously, the subject matter is still current and topical. At its core, La Cage is very much about family values -- that being the family headed by Georges and Albin, and their love and commitment to each other and their son.

The original production of the musical and its more recent revival were lavish and opulent productions. This version, which originated in London at the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, is scaled down and more intimate. The night club is not nearly as high end, the Cagelles have more attitude and, intentionally, are not the precision dancers that past productions have displayed. While not quite seedy, everything is clearly more downscale. While still glitzy, this La Cage is far more a chamber musical than past productions. At intermission, the jury was out in my mind about this version. The first act had its charming moments, but some of the flaws that have always been inherent in La Cage remained. I loved the musical when I first saw the original, but subsequent viewings of the original and the '04 revival exposed some issues, and it never held up as well as the best musicals do.

It also took me some time to get used to and warm up to Douglas Hodge, the British actor who also had played Albin in the London production, for which he won their prestigious Olivier award. Hodge is a very different Albin than we are used to. A classically trained actor, Hodge played Albin like he was doing Harold Pinter, which was somewhat disconcerting. His performance is detailed, thought out, and fine tuned. He definitely is flamboyant and fragile; while calling his Albin decrepit would be an exaggeration, he is closer to that that we have seen before. But it wasn't until his superb performance of the popular anthem that closes the first act, "I Am What I Am," that Hodge starts to melt my resistance and win me over. From that point on, both the production itself and Hodge were pretty sublime. Act Two was a complete joy, filled with charm, heart, and big laughs. Even Herman's two less distinguished throwaway songs worked, and everything from "Best of Times" to the always wonderful closing moment is pretty delicious musical comedy, with some truly beautiful moments of genuine poignancy.

The scaled-down production mostly worked for me. The idea of a less glamorous nightclub makes sense, and there still was color and enough production values for this tale. There were a few moments where I missed the more elaborate and evocative sets from previous productions, but the revival had a solid visual look overall, and the reduced orchestrations worked far better than I expected. Director Terry Johnson has found the right approach to show off La Cage's strengths: the Herman score, the humor, and the warmth; the love story and the family values in the Georges-Albin relationship come through loud and clear. Choreographer Lynne Page has added some athletic and effective choreography. While this La Cage is not exactly a revelation, it still makes a strong case that this musical can rise above some of its inherent problems and prove to be enormously satisfying musical theater.

The name star in this revival is Kelsey Grammer (image above left), who is suave, debonair, and winning as Georges, including just the proper mix of exasperation and love in his interaction with Albin. Grammer has a pleasant singing voice, just right for Georges' songs; "Song on the Sand" is always a lovely moment expressing Georges' love for Albin. Hodge's performance, as mentioned earlier, is detailed and nuanced. His English music hall approach to some of his musical numbers is winning and brings a new dimension to the show, especially in "The Best of Times."

The rest of the cast members all have their moments to shine. In smaller roles, marvelous Broadway performers including Veanne Cox, Fred Applegate, Elena Shaddow, and Christine Andreas all have far more impact than their small parts might normally allow. In the often unsympathetic and thus difficult role of Georges' son Jean-Michel, A. J. Shively does quite well, delivering a truly charming "With Anne on My Arm" and a most touching "Look Over There" reprise. Robin DeJesus has some funny bits as Jacob the maid, and the Les Cagelles are impressive and funny.

The audience seemed to love La Cage. When the cast, during the curtain call, reprises "Best of Times," the response is genuine rapture and delight -- in other words, musical comedy heaven. This La Cage has several of those moments, and that alone allows it to overcome any uneven first act moments and bring its audiences to a state of pure joy. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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