Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 28, 2011
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: Harvey Fierstein, Christopher Sieber, Mike McShane, Allyce Beasley, Chris Hoch, Elena Shaddow, A.J. Shively, with Christine Andreas and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Dale Hensley, Heather Lindell, Michael Lowney, Caitlin Mundth, Cheryl Stern, Bruce Winant, and featuring the notorious and dangerous Cagelles Matt Anctil, Christophe Caballero, Sean Patrick Doyle, Yurel Echezarreta, Logan Keslar, Todd Lattimore, Terry Lavell, Karl Warden.
Whether that's a good thing is another question entirely. Johnson's production retains the good feelings inherent in the musical, particularly in Jerry Herman's ever-cuddly score and the still-zingy gags of Fierstein's book, and remains an overall loving and thoughtful interpretation of the show. But the charm and theatricality of neither the work nor this mounting have been amplified, and as headed by Fierstein and Christopher Sieber, respectively in the roles of Albin and Georges, the story's emotional core has gone into full collapse.
The reason for that starts with Fierstein. He knows his way around his own one-liners, to be sure, and he finds a legitimate comic poignancy in Albin's graceful abandonment by both Georges and Jean-Michel (still A.J. Shively, still excellent), Georges's son from a brief fling that Albin has raised as his own. His comic tics, such as suddenly dropping his lyric voice to a full growl, could do with some replenishment, but many still land.
What does not is the notion that Albin is either a credible drag artist, or one that people would pay to see. The askance, even maternal, femininity that Fierstein brought to his Tony-winning turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray is not evident here. You don't believe, as you must, that Fierstein's Albin comes alive when donning his wig and glittering dress to become Zaza, the glamor-minded centerpiece of the La Cage nightclub. His walk in his numbers is thunderous, but he evinces no palpable softness or mystery as Zaza.
Only at two moments does Fierstein connect: when running up the aisle at the end of the first act, tears streaming down his face after being shoved into the background to pave the way for Jean-Michel's marriage to the daughter of a bigoted political reformer; and when masquerading as Jean-Michel's mother, who was to give her blessing to Jean-Michel's fiancée, Anne (Elena Shaddow), and her parents (Mike McShane and Allyce Beasley). If you still don't believe Fierstein could be considered a woman, you at least accept his genuine caring for Jean-Michel's well-being.
Fierstein's singing is harder to write off. Though he passed muster in Fiddler on the Roof (Tevye is not exactly vocally demanding), and Hairspray and A Catered Affair (which were tailored to his limitations), the fact that Albin was structured for the top-notch singer George Hearn creates an inescapable vocal vacuum here. Fierstein whispers some songs, moans through others, and so forces the big numbers (particularly the defiant "I Am What I Am") much that he undermines their natural musicality. If Zaza must live in both the clothes and the music, Fierstein's Albin is spiritually homeless.
Sieber's problems are subtler. His accomplished baritone has no trouble sailing through the score. But he looks far too young opposite Fierstein, even the shabby gray makeup in his hair not bridging the generation gap, and he possesses none of the effortless suavity that Kelsey Grammer brought to the role. Sieber looks and behaves like a boy playing dress-up, rather than a hopeless passing-middle-age romantic, and he offers no clue what attracted (and attracts) him to Albin.
Another disadvantage for Sieber is that he assumed his role only after Jeffrey Tambor bowed out after a couple of performances, so more time onstage and working with each other may deepen the characters' bond. Right now, however, it's almost too weak to keep La Cage afloat: Good as Shively and Shaddow are, their roles are too insubstantial to carry the show. Christine Andreas is still fun but gallingly Gallic as nosy restaurateuse Jacqueline; McShane and Beasley are uneasily excitable as the aging intolerants; and Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Rent's Tony-winning Angel) reads as too mature for the silly, bitchy bickering that constitutes almost all the dialogue of Albin's maid/butler Jacob.
If anything, the Les Cagelles dancers are even less fetching than they were the first time around, and as this production doesn't pretend they should remotely resemble women, they face stiff competition from the more accomplished (and extravagant) goings-on at Priscilla, Queen of the Desert just down the street. The Cagelles leap, prance, and pose as required by Lynne Page's choreography, but they neither excite nor entice.
They aren't men who need to be women, they're just men dressed up as women. That difference means everything in the context of La Cage aux Folles, and becomes more damaging the less you care about whether Georges, Albin, and Jean-Michel will ever fully form the family unit they crave. The show remains a melodic plea for acceptance, and Johnson's treatment gives it the color and respect it requires. This show may no longer be groundbreaking, but it continues to satisfy because, to paraphrase a lyric, it is what it is. But it should be clearer than it currently is exactly what that's supposed to be.