Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 18, 2010
La Cage aux Folles Music & lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Based on the play “La Cage aux Folles” by Jean Poiret. Directed by Terry Johnson. Choreography by Lynne Page. Music supervision, orchestrations & dance arrangements by Jason Carr. Scenic design by Tim Shortall. Costume design by Matthew Wright. Lighting design by Nick Richings. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Wig & makeup design by Richard Mawbey. Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge, Fred Applegate, Veanne Cox, Chris Hoch, Elena Shaddow, A.J. Shively, with Christine Andreas, and Robin De Jesús, Dale Hensley, Heather Lindell, Caitlin Mudth, Bill Nolte, David Nathan Perlow, Cheryl Stern, and featuring the notorious and dangerous Cagelles Nick Adams, Christophe Caballero, Sean A. Carmon, Nicholas Cunningham, Sean Patrick Doyle, Logan Keslar, Todd Lattimore, Terry Lavell.
Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical adaptation of Jean Poiret’s play fired an important salvo when it open on Broadway in 1983, signaling the acceleration of gay stories (particularly romances) within mainstream entertainment. With that subject matter now far more generally accepted, the story — about a French couple, Georges and Albin, who must cope with their son Jean-Michel marrying the daughter of a highly bigoted government official — seems more quaintly nostalgic than incendiary.
This enables exactly the kind of “traditional” music comedy Herman loved writing for. If it’s not quite Hello, Dolly! or Mame, it’s not far off, with Fierstein’s dialogue rich with gags and Herman’s tunes of his typical toe-tapping, head-bobbing sort. The jauntily romantic “With Anne on My Arm” for the young lovers (or its variation for Georges and Albin); the wistful “Song on the Sand,” about memories that fade though love itself remains; and the recriminating “Look Over There,” when Georges demand Jean-Michel not shun his spiritual mother, Albin; are irresistible in the best of Old Broadway ways.
But that’s just the show. This production is another story — and mostly a happy one. Imported from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, it’s apparently been directed by Terry Johnson as an apology for the dreary, monochromatic musical revivals the U.K. has forced on us in recent years. Unlike Sam Buntrock’s Sunday in the Park with George (also from the Chocolate Factory); John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd and Company; David Leveaux’s Nine and Fiddler on the Roof; and Trevor Nunn’s current A Little Night Music, this production’s design and emotional palettes extend beyond black and white, and comedy is respected rather than scorned.
It is, in almost every way that matters, the show as it was originally conceived. And because of that, it works about as well as any La Cage aux Folles can today (and better overall than the last revival in 2004). Of course there’s a concept to justify the smallness of the proceedings: The La Cage nightclub (designed by Tim Shortall) subsumes the stage, and is smaller, seedier, and more Technicolor Cabaret than is usual. This, in turn, results in a reduced orchestra (of eight pieces, including conductor Todd Ellison on keyboards) and reduced orchestrations (who also did Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music) to suggest the difficult—but occasionally successful—attempts at grandeur that is this hole-in-the-wall establishment’s operating philosophy.
Missteps like these are easily forgiven when so much else is on target — particularly with the cast. Kelsey Grammer is an outstanding Georges, singing expertly, and cutting a suave figure that radiates both the impishness and authority the character would need to maintain his spirits and his career under the circumstances. Crisply dry in comic scenes, gently passionate in tenderer moments, and darkly reverberant when reproving Jean-Michel or his future in-laws, Grammer owns the stage every moment he’s on it, establishing by his esteemed presence a La Cage utterly believable as an oasis of class within a desert of mediocrity.
Jean-Michel is a thankless role, but A.J. Shively brings a strongly manly, yet slightly embarrassed poise to it that beautifully capture the competing halves of the character. Elena Shaddow shines as his intended, Anne, making the most of the snippets of song and dialogue she’s allowed to deliver. Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox are delightful personifications of upright uptightness as Anne’s parents, and hold onto their shameful streaks to the very end—proving, just as they should, that some people never really can change. Christine Andreas is lively but wasted in the tiny role of the scheming restaurateuse Jacqueline, though why she wields a knee-deep French accent when no one else bothers is never quite clear.
Nor, for that matter, is it explained why no drag character is remotely convincing as a woman. In the original Broadway production, the dancers (known as Les Cagelles) were positioned as impersonation artists so gifted that two women could be hidden among their ranks—and, when revealed at the curtain calls, reportedly elicited gasps from the disbelieving audience. In 2004, the effect was downplayed, but not abandoned. Here, the Cagelles are so sculpted and sturdy that they wouldn’t fool most blind people; they plod through Lynne Page’s effective but unremarkable choreography, and deliver lines and pose so broadly they come across as objects to be mocked rather than adored. If Johnson is aiming for more realism, he’s sacrificed their artistry — not a good trade-off.
Douglas Hodge, who originated his role in London, has no trouble locating Albin’s humanity. This serves him well in the second-act scene containing Herman’s rousing “The Best of Times,” in which he renders Anne’s indoctrination into the family so charming and welcoming that Shaddow’s increasing radiance during the song is completely earned.
Credible as needing or wearing Albin’s sequined feminine skin, during that scene or any other, however, Hodge is not. You’re always aware of his underlying insecurity—precisely what the drag is supposed to alleviate: Albin must come alive while performing, and Hodge doesn’t. An acclaimed Pinter interpreter, Hodge delves perhaps too deep into the character’s anguish. This has payoffs in the confrontation scenes, but the role also has hefty, glitzy show-biz requirements and Hodge simply cannot fill them. This is most noticeable when bitter betrayal and audience appeasement must blend at the end of the first act, in Albin’s titanic “I Am What I Am,” and Hodge can’t connect the pieces, which sends you into intermission with a whimper rather than a bang.
Luckily, Johnson ensures that Act II is an energetic, smile-inducing tribute to the Golden Age values Herman holds so dear. Because those are embraced so fully and so warmly, the show succeeds as a whole. But, as Albin explains in his establishing number, “A Little More Mascara,” it’s all the details that make the man, the woman, or the act. If Hodge and the other men-as-women paid as much attention to them as Grammer does to Georges, this La Cage aux Folles would be as beautiful as it is beaming. As it is, it too could do with just a little more mascara.