La Cage aux Folles Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Harvey Fierstein. Based on the play 'La Cage Aux Folles' by Jean Poiret. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music Director Patrick Vaccariello. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Starring Gary Beach, Daniel Davis. Also starring Gavin Creel, Angela Gaylor, Ruth Williamson, Michael Mulheren, Linda Balgord, John Shuman, Michael Benjamin Washington. Adrian Bailey, Bryan Batt, Paul Canaan, Joey Dudding, Christopher Freeman, Merwin Foard, Patty Goble, Dale Hensley, John Hillner, Leah Horowitz, Clark Johnsen, Paul McGill, Brad Musgrove, Eric Otte, Nathan Peck, Andy Pellick, T. Oliver Reid, Jermaine R. Rembert, Dorothy Stanley, Eric Stretch, Charlie Sutton, Will Taylor, Josh Walden, Emma Zaks.
Nothing dulls faster than a knife that wasn't that sharp to begin with. It should come as no surprise, then, that the revival of La Cage aux Folles that just opened at the Marquis not only doesn't cut deeply, it doesn't even break the skin.
That's not to say that this musical, with its Jerry Herman score and Harvey Fierstein book, was ever really cutting-edge. The original 1983 Broadway production was distinct for its central gay love affair, more or less unique at that time. And though the piece, which is based on the Jean Poiret play of the same title, features over a dozen cross-dressing men in chorus, supporting, and leading roles, this has never exactly been a challenging show.
But the past 21 years have rendered this show's charms quaint in a way that hasn't happened with Herman's other, earlier smash-hit musical comedies, Hello, Dolly! and Mame. La Cage aux Folles, despite enjoying considerable success on Broadway and around the world, is unlikely to ever achieve the timeless greatness of its predecessors.
Perhaps it's a good thing that this show has taken on "period piece" status, as inseparable from the time of its creation as the antic, brainless musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s were to theirs. The last two decades have seen an influx of gay-themed works into pop culture, which signals something of a normalization of the perception of homosexuality in American culture. The current gay marriage controversy notwithstanding, that achievement alone is worthy of celebration.
So, in its own way, is La Cage itself, which bears the honest-to-goodness tunefulness and unquenchable goodwill that came naturally to Herman in his heyday, but are too often anathema to today's writers. Fierstein's book is a decent enough complement to Herman's score, though it's strikingly, even shockingly conventional in its treatment of those who live, work, or even just visit flashy St. Tropez, France and the La Cage aux Folles nightclub.
The club is run by Georges (Daniel Davis), and populated by a dozen beauteous "Les Cagelles," who make their living from teasing the patrons, male and female alike, with the ambiguousness of their gender (and, one presumes, their sexuality). At the center of it all is Georges's partner of 20 years, Albin (Gary Beach), who parades the stage of the club as the luminous Zaza, now a local celebrity. That doesn't protect him from the withering treatment of Georges's son from a brief heterosexual fling, Jean-Michel (Gavin Creel), who's planning to marry the daughter of a staunchly conservative couple at the center of a political crusade to promote traditional family values.
So, when Jean-Michel's fiancée and her parents come to visit, Albin is shoved into the background and everyone else the closet to promote the kind of normal existence that Jean-Michel has never lived. This all paves the way for the production's most telling number, a stinging rebuke to the cold-heartedness pervading their once-tight family unit. The song demonstrates Herman at his melodic, incisive best, and is undoubtedly of the chilling, wake-up-and-take-notice variety that any show stepping even one foot in controversy can't do without.
Its title? "Look Over There." Yes, that's the firm musical reprimand from Georges to Jean-Michel in the second act, pleading him to accept love in whatever form it takes, and not "I Am What I Am," the titanic first act finale in which Albin, in the middle of a performance, storms off the stage after being unceremoniously expelled from Jean-Michel's life. It's not just that 20 years of cultural progress has rendered this anthemic composition toothless; while "Look Over There" resonates more strongly today, "I Am What I Am" still packs a considerable dramatic punch.
But its overall impact is diminished by Beach's forced, unfocused performance. It can't be sold as a pre-ordained showstopper, it must be Albin's anguished statement of rage and disappointment. But when Beach charges off the stage, he's the Big Star making his Big Exit, and missing the song's vital connection to the character and story. His entire conception of the character is off, from his establishing number "A Little More Mascara" on - Albin is supposed to find self-esteem in his make-up, but Beach begins the number (and the show) strong and has nowhere to go but down.
If Beach needed director Jerry Zaks - who generally keeps the proceedings in check - to remind him that he's no longer playing Roger De Bris in The Producers, his co-star fares much better. Davis is engaging and charming from his first moments onstage, emceeing the club with wry comments to the audience and a sly smile suggesting a man at peace with himself and his life. Wielding a surprisingly strong singing voice and his proven acting ability, he nails scenes and sails through the romantic "Song on the Sand" or the reproving "Look Over There" with the kind of facility you'd expect from a musical comedy veteran like, oh, Gary Beach.
As for the other performers, Creel's touch is too light for Jean-Michel, and he renders neither the character's callousness or change of heart in believable terms. Angela Gaylor makes little impression as his fiancée, though Michael Mulheren and Linda Balgord successfully overplay the exaggerated intolerance of her parents. Ruth Williamson garners some class, laughs, and even glamour from her brief turn as a cunning restaurateur, though Michael Benjamin Washington, as Albin's maid, spends too much time trying to steal the show.
The production is greatly aided by Scott Pask's intensely colorful sets (particularly for the club scenes), Donald Holder's splashy lights, and the sequins, feathers, and spangles of William Ivey Long's impressive costume plot. (The fine musical direction is by Patrick Vaccariello.) But the big dance numbers don't benefit from Mitchell's overly busy and empty dances; the dances are intermittently great, executed with lots of expert flips, spins, and high kicks, but Mitchell's bag of tricks appears increasingly shallow with each new show he choreographs. The most blatant example is Georges and Albin's romantic duet, "With You on My Arm," the staging of which uneasily (and uncannily) echoes that he devised for the quirky duet "Timeless to Me" in Hairspray.
In many ways, that show looks downright daring compared to this one, though it deals with racial rather than sexual integration. Still, La Cage aux Folles plays well without daring, even if it's also playing without a rollicking emotional payoff. After the bigots are dealt with, the central, longtime lovers share a quiet kiss in the moonlight; it's romantic, but not groundbreaking. But for a show that pleads for tolerance, isn't that the best compliment possible?