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Chicago by John Olson

La Cage aux Folles
Bank of America Theatre

Also see John's review of Elizabeth Rex

La Cage aux Folles
George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber
Some eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Terry Johnson's London production of La Cage aux Folles would transfer to Broadway, only five years after a successful revival of the show during the 2004-05 season. Judging from the touring production of his staging that arrived in Chicago on December 20 and starring George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber, it's a good thing it did. Johnson's take on the show makes a strong case for La Cage as being a much more substantial piece than may have been evident from the 2004 Broadway production and maybe even the original 1983 version.

The most impressive thing about Johnson's version is that, unlike some of the other recent British re-envisionings of American musicals, he hasn't radically rethought this one. He is just is playing it closer to the Harvey Fierstein's text taken from Jean Poiret's original play about a gay couple running a drag club on the Riviera. While the 1983 and 2004 Broadway productions gave the club and its drag performers all the gloss and glamour of an almost family-friendly Las Vegas show lounge, Johnson gives us a club that's a bit edgier and more risqué—enough so that we might believe a socially conservative politician like the intended father-in-law of the couple's son might oppose. The muscular drag artists are clearly men in wigs, making the whole proposition appear more subversive and threatening to traditional moralists. Plus, there are only six drag artists—half the number in those previous Broadway productions, and that seems much more plausible and realistic for such a family-run operation. The six performers—played by Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell and Trevor Downey—are all irresistibly watchable and create distinct individual characters, giving the piece more texture. Johnson also has enough guts to let the bad guy be a bad guy. Bruce Winant plays M. Dindon as a believably narrow-minded and mean power-grabber. Even Jean-Michel (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the engaged and straight biological son of club owner Georges (Hamilton) who wants to hide his father's drag-queen partner Albin (Sieber) from his intended's conservative parents, is shown to be immature and selfish. The sum of all this is to ground the piece in reality and establish some very real and plausible emotional stakes.

Though the drag ensemble is half the size of the previous Broadway counterparts, it's more entertaining, thanks to the imaginative dances by Lynne Page and creative lighting design by Nick Richings. The finale is particularly impressive—placing the dancers in a giant birdcage and later paying tribute to the Moulin Rouge and Paris's sexy Montmartre district, with help from the set design by Tim Shortall and the flashy, clever showgirl costumes by Matthew Wright.

As much as anything, though, this show needs a kick-ass Albin, and in Christopher Sieber it has one. Sieber is just amazing in his comic abilities. He can switch on a dime from diva-ish dismay and drop his drag persona to express his real displeasure. Every joke lands and Sieber has a powerful and versatile voice that delivers his big songs with all the skill of an Edith Piaf. He begins "I Am What I Am" in a tearful whisper before building to a brilliant anthemic finale, and a similar build is used effectively on "The Best of Times." Sieber played Georges opposite bookwriter Harvey Fierstein for a short time and got to see the master in action. The writer/performer voice of Fierstein, who arguably brought drag performance to mainstream audiences, is evident in Sieber's performance. I was fortunately close enough to read Sieber's brilliant facial expressions, which may not have been evident to those in the balcony, but his performance was big enough to work for all seating sections.

Sieber's skill and onstage experience, together with the "bigness" of his character, does at points overpower his movie star co-leading man, even though they have good chemistry as a plausibly May-December gay couple. While Hamilton has played Chicago's Billy Flynn on Broadway for three short stints, his career has been mostly on the screen (has it ever—an impressive credits over a nearly 60-year career). He's a little wooden here, and not always quick enough in reactions to the others on stage, but his charm is undeniable and absolutely right for the character. Georges is onstage throughout most of the show and you can barely take your eyes off him, even you wanted to, which you probably don't. Yet, he's generous to his cast mates and completely likable in the role. He sings quite well enough, getting by with short phrasing when he has to and only hitting one sour note that I caught the whole show. It's a treat to see him on stage and, though his presence works in a whole different way from Sieber's performance, the two make a terrific pair of leads.

The supporting players are all strong, beginning with Jeigh Madjus's campy-but-not-excessively-so butler Jacob. Gay Marshall is effervescent as the restaurateur Jacqueline, and Winant and Cathy Newman do double duty as the café owners M. and Mme. Renaud as well as the parents of the lovely Anne (Allison Blair McDowell).

As much as anything, what makes the case for La Cage as a musical of significance is its performance of Jerry Herman's score. Herman is the master of the brassy traditional show tune, but the songs are performed here with a delicacy that gives them the feeling of authentic pre-war Parisian cabaret numbers. Jason Carr's orchestrations for the eight-piece band seem exactly what's needed and make the show's ballads ("With Anne on My Arm," "Song on the Sand" and "Look Over There") as hauntingly memorable as its better-known anthems. Herman will always be better remembered for Hello Dolly! and probably even Mame, but the quiet sincerity of this score ought contribute to and enhance his reputation as well.

There's a school of thought that smaller is always better, and productions like La Cage that have come over here from London's Menier Chocolate Factory theatre have given credence to that thesis. Certainly Johnson's smart retelling of this story—coming in the midst of an American political campaign that is seeing its share of politicians like Dindon—should make the case for La Cage aux Folles as a vital musical in the popular catalogue that deserves frequent productions.

La Cage Aux Folles will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through January 1, 2012. For ticket information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com, call 800-775-2000 or visit any Broadway in Chicago box office. For more information on the tour, visit www.lacage.com.


Photo: Paul Kolnik Studio

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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