The last Broadway revival of "La Cage aux Folles" was a little more than five years ago, so it's not as if anybody was clamoring for another go-round, no matter how beloved Jerry Herman's score is.
But since the scaled-down London import that opened last night lets us see Olivier-winning star Douglas Hodge in action, we'll take it. Kelsey Grammer may be the draw for local audiences, but the show is Hodge's alone.
Hodge plays the irrepressibly campy Albin, who at night turns into Zaza, the star of the drag revue at the titular Riviera nightclub. He lives with his partner of 20 years, Georges (Grammer), whose son -- the result of a brief heterosexual mishap -- wants to marry the daughter of a conservative politician. Clearly, this is going to create problems.
Hodge exposes the mix of rage, fear and uncertainty underneath Zaza's sequins, but that's almost expected in this type of semi-revisionist production. Having Brits look for the dark lining in the silver cloud has become as predictable as Americans going for the flash that dominated Jerry Zaks and Jerry Mitchell's take in 2004.
More interesting is that Hodge reveals -- and revels in -- the absolute joy Albin gets from being onstage. This feeling is spelled out early on in "A Little More Mascara," but throughout the show Hodge lets us see and hear how Albin can't not perform -- and how he can't conform to stereotypical masculinity, either.
Hodge is all the more spectacular because he isn't getting much from his co-star.
Grammer's refined, genteel persona would seem like a perfect fit for Georges. But the actor looks more stiff than necessary; his Georges calls Albin "my love" while holding him at an emotional arm's' length.
Terry Johnson's direction is equally unbalanced.
The idea is that this La Cage is a small, slightly tacky joint instead of a grand establishment, and the six chorus girls, the Cagelles, are muscular fellows who can do routines with feathered fans and punch you out.
Lynne Page's choreography has a rough-hewn charm but, overall, the La Cage numbers are neither sophisticated nor coarse enough. Nor did drag queens of the '70s (when the action is set) have such gym-dandy bodies -- some of these Cagelles look like they're on steroids.
And yet the show entertains. The supporting cast -- particularly Robin De Jesus, equally deadpan and flaming as the butler/maid Jacob -- is top-notch. Harvey Fierstein's book, which celebrates nonconformity and generosity, still resonates, while Herman's songs are downright unsinkable. When Albin powers through the anthemic "I Am What I Am," he turns pride into a shield, but also a weapon. And it's an absolute thrill.
Their plumage is wilting, their wigs are askew, and their bustiers keep slipping south to reveal unmistakably masculine chests. Yet the ladies of the chorus from “La Cage aux Folles” have never looked more appealing than they do in the warm, winning production that opened Sunday night at the Longacre Theater.
Terry Johnson’s inspired revival of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical, starring a happily mismatched Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge (in a bravura Broadway debut), delivers the unexpected lesson that in theater, shabby can be not just chic but redemptive. This deliberately disheveled show, incubated at the tiny hit-spawning Menier Chocolate Factory in London, is a far cry from the high-gloss original production of 1983 or the glamorous, soulless revival that opened less than six years ago.
The Riviera nightclub of the title — run by Georges (Mr. Grammer) and the setting for a popular racy transvestite revue starring his partner, Albin (Mr. Hodge) — looks as if it could do with a coat of paint and perhaps a delousing. Georges, whose dapper evening jacket is definitely not bespoke, has a worn-down, worn-out appearance. And no matter how much rouge and mascara Albin applies, the dumpy, jowly chanteuse he becomes onstage will never resemble the screen siren of his mind’s eye.
As for the Cagelles, the revue’s scrappy six-member corps de ballet (pared down by half from their last Broadway incarnation), let’s just say that even the most myopic club patron isn’t going to mistake them for real live girls. “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion,” they sing in gravelly chorus in their opening number. But the deception being peddled so adroitly here isn’t one of mistaken sexual identity.
What makes this version work — transforming a less-than-great musical into greatly affecting entertainment — is its insistence on the saving graces of the characters’ illusions about themselves and, by extension, the illusions of the production in which they appear. As presented here “La Cage” is (you should pardon the expression) a fairy tale, a sweet, corny story that asks us to take people (the good-hearted ones, anyway) at their own valuation.
Try to see it their way, the show suggests; squint hard, and life at this dump will appear, for a second, beautiful. The old-fashioned, feel-good musical (which “La Cage” defiantly is, for better or worse) has always demanded such leaps of faith from its audience. Mr. Johnson’s interpretation coaxes a parallel between the willful make-believe happening onstage and our willingness to subscribe to it. The show’s very plot, we come to realize, is the triumph of musical-theater logic over reality.
That plot, described baldly, is still hard to swallow without gagging, as are some of Mr. Herman’s saccharine-crusted numbers. Adapted from Jean Poiret’s play, the basis for the popular 1978 French film (which Mike Nichols successfully remade in English as “The Birdcage” in 1996), “La Cage” could easily be titled “Jean-Michel Has Two Daddies.”
The sitcom setup is that the rather priggish Jean-Michel (A. J. Shively), sired by Georges (via a one-night stand with a chorus girl) and brought up by Georges and Albin, does not want to bring his fiancée home to mother. Anne (Elena Shaddow), his betrothed, is the daughter of M. Dindon (Fred Applegate), an ultra-right-wing politician who espouses, above all, traditional family values. The anxious Jean-Michel demands that Albin disappear on the night that the Dindons (rounded out by Veanne Cox as the repressed mother) come to dinner.
The ensuing turmoil and resolution can be summed up in the declaration: “Family values? I’ll show you family values!” (You’ve heard that before, right? You certainly have if you’ve been to the new “Addams Family” musical, which lamentably recycles the same idea.) The sentiments are laudable, but the expression of them (despite the French setting) is as apple-pie-sticky as those of an Andy Hardy movie.
I can’t say that Mr. Fierstein’s by-the-numbers book goes out of its way to make this medicinal sugar go down more easily. As written, the characters are either adorably cute or abrasively cartoonish, and often both. The show still takes at least 10 minutes too many to arrive at its predetermined conclusion. Yet I don’t think you’ll become restless at this production.
That’s partly because of the stylish yin and yang of its stars. Mr. Grammer (yes, the one from “Cheers” and “Frasier”) and Mr. Hodge (a multifaceted veteran of the London stage), play it straight and bent, respectively, in equally disarming ways. Albin has always been a natural-born showstopper. But Mr. Hodge, who originated the part in the London revival, brings a fluttery hyperintensity to the role that recharges it.
His Albin has absorbed a host of influences, including Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, the female impersonators of the British music hall. And he has combined these disparate elements into a jittery defense system that is on (and I mean on) at all times.
You don’t realize how much pain and anger have gone into this self-construction until you hear him do “I Am What I Am,” the show’s signature anthem, at the end of the first act. Mr. Hodge breathes fire here, his hitherto scratchy, campy voice growing into a white-hot blaze. It is — and who’d a thunk it? — the most electric interpretation of a song on Broadway right now.
Mr. Grammer provides the ideal counterpoint to this hysterical creature, in a cool, modest performance that has its own sneaky charm. That his singing voice is correspondingly quiet, with no muscle-flexing baritone bravado, makes Georges’s over-ripe sentimental ballads (“Look Over There,” “Song on the Sand”) palatable and even touching in their unaffected sincerity.
The rapport between him and Mr. Hodge, grounded in the peppery give and take of a vaudeville team, reminds us that there’s a necessary dash of showbiz to marriage. Like many couples, Georges and Albin have created their own private mise-en-scène and extended it to embrace a theatrical family that includes an over-the-top butler cum maid (Robin de Jesús, from “In the Heights”) and the vain restaurateur next door (Christine Andreas).
The design team — Tim Shortall (sets), Matthew Wright (costumes), Nick Richings (lighting), Jonathan Deans (sound) and Richard Mawbey (wigs and makeup) — have brought this insular world to physical life with wonderful seediness And the athletic production numbers, choreographed to embrace manly clunkiness by Lynne Page, are a tacky delight, especially that slipshod beach-ball number.
In another context these down-at-heel people who live on their illusions might be pathetic. But don’t worry. This is not “La Cage” as “The Iceman Cometh.” Even tripping over themselves, the Cagelles exude the raw pleasure of people being exactly who they want to be. That’s showbiz, folks. And when Albin leads the company in a beaming version of “The Best of Times,” a song that usually gives me hives, you’re likely to feel that a cramped, decrepit nightclub has become the coziest sanctuary in the world.
Why bring back "La Cage aux Folles" -- a major hit musical of the 1983-84 Broadway season, but certainly not a classic like "Gypsy" or "Fiddler on the Roof" -- only five years after its first Broadway revival? Especially when that 2004-05 stint proved a tired and unnecessary affair, suggesting that the original production (with its six Tony Awards) was stronger than the material. The producers of this new edition, which premiered at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007, have a convincing answer: It's funny, heartwarming and terrific.
"La Cage" is the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical in which one of the stars memorably confesses that when the going gets tough he simply puts on a little more mascara. Director Terry Johnson succeeds so well here by putting on both more and less mascara simultaneously. More mascara by letting Douglas Hodge, in the guise of the flamboyant drag-queen Albin (aka Zaza), play the role like, well, more of a flamboyant drag-queen than in prior major productions. Less mascara in that this is a stripped-down, mid-budget production; all those sequins and all that glitz that characterized Broadway's prior visits to St. Tropez have been toned down, allowing the audience to concentrate more on the tender and relatively simple story at the heart of the piece. (But not simplistic; "La Cage" is a masterpiece of dramaturgy compared to the similarly plotted musical they made out of "The Addams Family.")
The heart of the piece: that's what we get in this "La Cage," and that's what makes Johnson's production so tenderly affecting. The original -- acknowledging the socio-political temper of the times -- seemed to go to great lengths to present its leading men as not actually a (sexual) couple. The first revival, for offstage reasons, seemed to feature leading men who actively hated each other. Here, finally, we have a realistic and believable pair who have been devotedly living with each other for a quarter century. And that makes "La Cage" more emotionally effective than before.
The producers are fortunate to have imported Hodge, who won an Olivier for this role. He comes on looking and acting like Colleen Dewhurst playing farce, and proceeds to offer a performance at once grandly over-the-top (in the first act) and emotionally grabbing (in the second). The surprise of the evening comes from Kelsey Grammer as Georges. He plays the comedy and acts the host perfectly well, but in "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There" he gets to the heart: Here is a man earnestly and enduringly in love.
Supporting cast is almost uniformly excellent, led by fine comedians Fred Applegate (as the right-wing zealot of a prospective in-law) and Veanne Cox (as his not-so-straightlaced wife). A.J. Shively plays the son Jean-Michel with more spirit and less plasticity than usual, as does Elena Shaddow (Fanny to Applegate's Panisse in the recent Encores production of that other French Mediterranean musical, "Fanny"). The big-voiced Christine Andreas is all but invisible in the role of restaurateur Jacqueline, while Robin De Jesus -- who was a prime asset in "In the Heights" -- seems to have wandered into the wrong musical as the maid-butler Jacob. Les Cagelles of the affair make a prime sextuplet; each and every one of them enhances the evening's entertainment value.
Choreographer Lynne Page keeps those Cagelles amusingly busy, whipping the title song to a delightful frenzy, while the U.K. design team's compact but effective production perfectly suits the directorial concept. Musical director Todd Ellison capably leads his eight-piece band from a pair of balconies flanking the set. Jason Carr did the reorchestration, which is considerably more successful than his reduction of "A Little Night Music" across the street.
So chalk up this almost-too-soon revival as a victory for its producers. Director Johnson, last here in 2002 with Kathleen Turner and that ill-begotten "The Graduate," is warmly welcomed back to Broadway. But mostly one should raise a glass of champagne -- not the watered-down stuff -- to Herman and Fierstein. Their big, glitzy musical comedy hit of 1983 turns out to have a tender heart.
A telling moment came early at a recent preview of the new Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles (* * * out of four).
Wrapping the production number We Are What We Are, the delightfully witty and athletic male performers cast as Les Cagelles — the chorus "girls" at an outré nightclub on the French Riviera— tossed a few beach balls into the audience. The crowd, after having some fun, dutifully tossed them back, only to have the dancers hurl them out again. The boisterous back-and-forth escalated until one ball wound up in the mezzanine.
Attending a performance of this La Cage, which opened Sunday at the Longacre Theatre, is a bit like spending an afternoon with an overactive but thoroughly charming child.
An import of London's Menier Chocolate Factory, the production retains one of its original stars: the British trouper Douglas Hodge, who won an Olivier Award for his portrayal of Albin, the club's reigning drag queen and the longtime partner of its owner, Georges.
A classically trained actor and frequent associate of the late Harold Pinter, Hodge is plainly determined to show us the suffering and alienation informing Albin's extroverted alter ego, Zaza. Even before we learn that Jean-Michel, Georges' son from a previous heterosexual experiment — a young man whom Albin has literally raised like a mother — is shunning Albin to woo a girl from a socially reactionary family, he reveals the character's emotional battle scars. We see the grief, and grit, behind the glitter.
But if Hodge has some beautifully nuanced moments, he can also milk Zaza's camp value, and that of the show, to distraction. And Kelsey Grammer's Georges can be a too-willing accomplice. Breathlessly hamming it up through some of the early scenes, Grammer almost seems to be vying to beat Zaza at her own game.
Fortunately, Grammer settles into a more natural, endearing interpretation, and he and Hodge, for all their winking gestures, capably illustrate the affection and devotion binding this couple.
They're abetted, under Terry Johnson's giddy direction, by a number of entertaining supporting performances. Robin De Jesus delivers the highest octane level as Georges and Albin's feisty "maid," Jacob, presented here with a hilarious (if not exactly appropriate) Nuyorican accent.
A.J. Shively brings more starch and a limpid tenor to the role of Jean-Michel, while Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox do deft double duty as the girlfriend's stuffy parents and a pair of folksy café proprietors. And '70s Broadway ingénue-turned-cabaret star Christine Andreas pops up, as gorgeous and glorious-voiced as ever, as the bawdy restaurant owner Jacqueline.
They all seem to be having a swell time, as will you — so long as you can keep up with them.