La Cage aux Folles

Musical revival of the year.

  • GENDER NEUTRAL The Cagelles get intersexy.

GENDER NEUTRAL The Cagelles get intersexy.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

In the original 1983 production of La Cage aux Folles, the "notorious and dangerous Cagelles"—performers in a racy drag show in a dive on the French Riviera—were meant to confuse. "We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion," they sang in the opening number, looking like a garden of otherworldly flowers. (A few biological women were mixed in among the transvestites.) In the musical's new Broadway production, there are fewer Cagelles, just six in all, and they have no illusions. What they are is right up front: very fit, unabashed gay men in wigs and heels, dancing in a seedy bar. These queens have muscle, and so does this revival.

We've come a long way, baby, from 1983, when even those outrageous costumes stilled smelled vaguely of the closet they were kept in. The actors who played the show's central gay couple, Georges and Albin, broadcast their heterosexuality whenever possible; on the Tony Awards telecast that year, George Hearn absurdly wore a tuxedo while performing Albin's defiant first-act finale, in which he insists on being accepted as a drag queen. In the 2004 revival, the leads were openly gay, but the show had a queer whiff of mothballs: a '50s musical with an already dated '80s twist, pleasant enough but old (feathered) hat.

Terry Johnson's superb revival is tighter and bolder. This La Cage aux Folles is no longer breaking ground; it's planting new crops and watching them bloom. I would never have thought that we needed another revival of this musical so soon after the last one's flames flickered out. Yet somehow this familiar show blows the roof off the Longacre Theatre, and makes a case for La Cage as a classic of American musical comedy.

True, the production originated in London. But let's not hold that against it, especially when its English crown jewel—the wonderful Douglas Hodge as Albin, also known as Zaza, star of the drag revue, chief peacock and mother hen—shines so brightly. Making the most of the lines afforded to him by Harvey Fierstein, who knows from drag queens, Hodge's Albin is an extravagant fussbudget: at once self-dramatizing and generous, vulnerable and impossible. And he is beautifully partnered with Frasier's Kelsey Grammer, whose baritone suavity as Georges—cultivated but not entirely composed—provides a worthy anchor for Hodge's girly-man buoy.

Adapted from Jean Poiret's French farce, which has been filmed in English as The Birdcage, Fierstein's romp is at heart a paean to family values, albeit unconventional ones. Georges and Albin have an adult son, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively), who is engaged to Ann (Elena Shaddow), the daughter of an ultraconservative politician named Dindon (Fred Applegate). Worried that Zaza will scare the in-laws away, Jean-Michel banishes Albin from a meet-the-parents get-together. Hurt and comedy both ensue.

Jerry Herman's proudly old-fashioned score, which includes the neostandards "The Best of Times" and "Song on the Sand," is more than just a collection of head-burrowing melodies. Herman's instincts for song placement are first-rate; he knows why The Birdcage sings. And he also knows when the show must be stopped, most notably in the title number, which Johnson and choreographer Lynne Page turn into a knockout showcase for the outr Cagelles.

Although the younger characters remain underdeveloped—for better or worse, that is how they are written—the supporting actors are otherwise deluxe. In addition to Applegate, they include Veanne Cox—does anyone do nutty-brittle better?—as the repressed Mme. Dindon; the silver-voiced Christine Andreas as Jacqueline, a media-hungry restaurateur; and the remarkable Robin De Jess as Jacob, Zaza's sassy male maid, inventively reimagined with sweet licks of Latino brass.

Zaza has a cockney accent, Jacob speaks in a New York honk, and Jacqueline has a Gallic swoop, yet they all somehow fit in the same world. Although ostensibly set in Southern France, the show actually takes place in the land of musical comedy, and makes no apologies for that, just as those Cagelles are not trying to fool anyone. Tuneful, touching, tacky and bedazzling, La Cage aux Folles is what it is. And what it is is a sensation.

Longacre Theatre. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Dir. Terry Johnson. With Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin De Jess. 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. Buy Tickets