In post-election 2004 America, musicals don’t come with more built-in topicality than Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles,” which deals with homophobia and a political platform constructed on moral and family values. But mystifyingly, for a show with a book by the outspokenly gay-political Harvey Fierstein, this glitzy Broadway revival plays like a pre-“Will and Grace” relic, lobbed onto the stage as if in a cultural vacuum. As the 1983 dragfest’s best known song goes, “I Am What I Am.” This reincarnation is what it is, too, which should be fine with mainstream ticketbuyers looking for a broadly palatable crowd-pleaser with a comforting message of acceptance and just a hint of something more risque.
The tuner shows its 21 years of age and then some. Since the original, Arthur Laurents-directed production, which starred George Hearn and Gene Barry and played for 1,761 performances at the massive Palace Theater, the French source material by Jean Poiret (a play that became an international hit Gallic movie with two sequels) was updated and Americanized by helmer Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May in “The Birdcage.” In Jerry Zaks’ agreeable if somewhat pedestrian restaging, it’s as if that rejuvenation never happened.
Though laced with Fierstein’s saucy quips, the book is a decidedly creaky vehicle and Zaks’ direction does little to disguise its fatigue. The show does, however, receive an adrenaline shot from Jerry Mitchell’s athletic choreography, a significant improvement on the original. Segueing from exotic, ornithological circus act to vigorously acrobatic cancan, the title-song centerpiece is rowdily enjoyable, given an added thrill by the nerve-wracking fear that one of “Les Cagelles” will either tumble into the pit or brain the conductor with an ill-aimed kick.
The most beguiling drag queens traditionally have some meat on their bones, and Mitchell has clearly cast his chorines based on dancing ability rather than how they look in full frock. In fact, some of the sinewy nightclub hoofers actually look prettier out of drag as Riviera townsfolk or waiters. But the hard-working boys’ speed and agility in heels makes up for their homeliness en travesti.
The action hinges on the uproar that ensues when lovestruck Jean-Michel (Gavin Creel) announces to his gay, drag-club impresario father, Georges (Daniel Davis), his intention to marry a woman. That lass (Angela Gaylor) is the daughter of ultraconservative politician Edouard Dindon (Michael Mulheren), due to arrive with his wife (Linda Balgord) to meet the parents of their daughter’s fiance, whom Jean-Michel has described as a retired French Foreign Service diplomat and his (female) wife. This makes Georges’ long-term love and reigning stage star Albin, aka Zaza (Gary Beach), an unwelcome guest in his own home.
The culture clash of the encounter between the flamboyantly gay family and the rigidly traditionalist one seems underserved by the cursory book treatment from the moment the Dindons enter. But Fierstein ties up all the loose ends serviceably, redeeming the selfish Jean-Michel and providing an automatic attitude adjustment for Dindon and spouse during the course of Herman’s warm-hearted anthem “The Best of Times.”
In addition to its clunky book scenes, there’s some awkward structuring in the show: Georges and Albin’s cuddly soft-shoe, “With You on My Arm,” comes too early, before we’ve seen much evidence of their affection and longevity as a couple. But Davis and Beach provide an appealing center; at the final curtain, they stroll into the sunset with a lingering kiss — apparently deemed too daring in 1983 — that looks far too innocuous now to upset even Anita Bryant, were she around.
Debonair and arched-of-eyebrow if perhaps slightly long in the tooth, Davis puts his plummy delivery and sitcom largesse to good use as Georges, along with his rich baritone. Stepping back into pumps after his Tony-winning spin in “The Producers,” Beach seems physically uncertain at times but is vocally assured and becomes steadily more endearing. His Albin/Zaza is more convincing in hausfrau guise, posing as Jean-Michel’s sweetly doting mere, than as the queen of Riviera nightlife. But Beach’s rendition of act-one closer “I Am What I Am” — the show’s answer to “Rose’s Turn” — evinces the necessary resilience and dignity of a man who refutes the role of outsider.
Herman’s tuneful score has its share of uninspired filler — “Cocktail Counterpoint” is especially deadly — but the key songs are well served by a cast with uniformly capable pipes. Creel’s relaxed tenor makes nice work of “With Anne on My Arm” and “Look Over There,” but Jean-Michel is presented like a gay man’s damning vision of a straight man: bad outfits, bad dye job and — yikes! — a ponytail.
Scene-stealer of the supporting cast is Michael Benjamin Washington as Georges and Albin’s statuesque flamer of a butler/maid Jacob, always the source of the show’s funniest lines.
Scott Pask’s sets boast some witty touches, notably in the monastic makeover of Georges and Albin’s apartment before the Dindons’ visit, or the keyhole cutouts in a boudoir-pink quilted wall in the opening nightclub number. But despite the softening kiss of Donald Holder’s sugary lighting, too often the furnishings look cardboard and cheap, glaringly so in a repeatedly seen port backdrop.
Where the revival doesn’t stint is in the fur, feathers and sequins of William Ivey Long’s lavish costumes, incorporating some fun transformations, from Albin’s butterfly emergence during “A Little More Mascara” to the blazing red plumage of an outsize crinoline that serves as a choreographic Trojan horse.