Theatre Is Easy: “La Cage aux Folles”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: As Albin and Georges would say, “It’s rather gawdy, but it’s also rather grand.”

It would be impossible not to enjoy yourself at the revival of La Cage aux Folles, now playing on Broadway after a run at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory. I’m not normally one to make broad, all-encompassing statements like that, but seriously, I dare you to have a bad time. Singing, dancing, love stories, biceps, and boas — prove me wrong.

La Cage is charming from the get-go, with a story that is ultimately about love and loyalty. It’s also a celebration of life and individuality in all their sparkly goodness. Perhaps the most important relationship in the room is the one between the audience and the performers in a consistent connection throughout this radiant production. There is a shared joy.

Kelsey Grammer stars in this gayest of draggy musicals as Georges, the emcee and owner of a drag club in the south of France aptly called La Cage aux Folles. Georges and his partner Albin (Douglas Hodge, in a standout performance) have run the club for years, with Albin as the headlining performer, Zaza. The men have a son, Jean-Michel (AJ Shivley), who is straight, much to their chagrin, and he announces that he’s proposed to his girlfriend, Anne (Elena Shaddow). Anne’s family is uberconservative, and as a dinner will be held for the families to meet one another, Jean-Michel requests that his parents play it straight themselves.

If this plot sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve seen Mike Nichols’s 1996 movie The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. It’s great in its own right and is based on La Cage, although it’s not a musical.

The show itself, by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, does a lot of things right. It establishes two incredibly endearing characters whose lifestyle (though ostentatiously gay in every way) is also weirdly relatable and seemingly normal in the context of their present situation: their only child is getting married and they are very different form their future in-laws.

The conflict provides ample opportunity for jokes and one-liners, and I can’t even count the number of sight gags the production utilizes; the humor is lowbrow, but it’s totally sincere. Plotwise, La Cage is mostly set-up. The in-laws don’t even meet one another until halfway through the second act. And then the denouement wraps up the drama in a neat little package. But as far as musical theatre stories go, La Cage certainly has the ability to keep its audience engaged in the action; it’s hardly full of surprises, but the characters make you care about what’s happening.

This production is brilliantly conceived, using a small Broadway theater to create a tinier package altogether. That’s not to say the show isn’t big — it’s definitely as flashy and big budget as you’d expect, but conceptually it’s scaled down. This makes for a more intimate experience. The theater offers cabaret table seating in the front row (for a mere $250 a pop), and there is a definite intention to bring the audience into the cruise-ship chic world of La Cage.

The script itself encourages that convention, with Georges as the emcee and the audience essentially functioning as the audience at the club. And the chorus of dancers at La Cage aux Folles, called the Cagelles, numbers only six. In previous incarnations, like the 2004 Broadway revival, there were several more Cagelles, including some men in drag along with female dancers, but in this production they’re all men in drag. Sure, the illusion that they’re women is present, but there’s never any question as to their gender sans makeup and costumes. All of these conceits together add to the intimacy of the evening. The audience is able to truly invest as the drama unfolds, and the appeal of George and Albin is all the more palpable.

The six Cagelles deserve a mention, as they are all tremendous dancers (with tremendous muscles). They are the epitome of classy drag: playful, talented performers who tease while looking smoking hot in their tiny outfits. Gay or straight, you find yourself drawn into their act. If you enjoy the art of drag (i.e. you love RuPaul’s Drag Race), you will be absolutely taken with the Cagelles.

Douglas Hodge revives his performance from the London production. He won several accolades overseas, and it’s clear this part was meant for him. He owns it, in almost a Mama Rose (Gypsy) sort of way, embodying a strong but wounded woman who just wants to do right. Grammer, as his counterpart, is equally qualified and has a great singing voice. He recalls a Frasier Crane sensibility and it fits perfectly, although he has a nicer coif and is a little less neurotic than the TV character that made him famous.

As far as Broadway experiences go, La Cage offers many attributes that make audiences swoon. It is theatrical and approachable, and positive, and bawdy enough to entertain without going too far to turn certain audience members off. Sure, there are innuendos, and the drag is revealing, but all in all the show remains PG-13. And the ultimate message of love and family is about as G-rated as you can get. It is endearingly accessible and from the audience response, it’s clear that it’s well received on several levels. It wasn’t necessarily time for another revival of this show, since it was a mere six years ago that it played on Broadway, but this version stands apart and is welcomed nonetheless. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a musical theatre experience — it’s worth the price with its charm, and its long run time (2 hours, 40 minutes) lets you sink your teeth into a sparkly, glitzy, magical time.

La Cage aux Folles plays at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. Performances are Tue and Thu 8 PM, Wed and Sat 2:30 and 8 PM, Fri 8 PM, and Sun 7 PM (3 PM after 6/13). Tickets are $36.50-$132.50 and can be purchased at telecharge.com, and for $251.50 you can sit at a cabaret table in the front row. Same-day student rush tickets are available at the box office for $36.50 (two per ID). For more show information visit lacage.com, and for more theater reviews visit theasy.com.