Pass the Vicodin. Judging by the difficulty Robert Goulet shows in clambering up and down stairs or hauling himself in and out of chairs in “La Cage aux Folles,” the show’s painkiller bill soon will be right up there with its depilatory wax tab. But while the new lead’s voice might have lost some of its power with the passing decades, Goulet’s lush baritone lends a mellow charm and his Vegas-style, gentlemanly elegance brings a welcome relaxed quality to a show that otherwise has slid into shrill sitcom mugging and hysterical door-slamming farce.
With Jerry Zaks off in London directing Kevin Spacey in “The Philadelphia Story” at the Old Vic, it seems clear the drag queens at the Marquis are running amok. And not just the drag queens. From supporting players through to Goulet’s co-star Gary Beach (returning to the show after shooting his role in the film of “The Producers”), a tiresome belief seems to have taken hold that larger and broader is funnier. Afraid not.
Some of the squawking perfs here would seem right at home in Branson, Mo., which is perhaps unsurprising given the popularity in that dinner theater capital of Jerry Herman’s musicals. But for a show only 22 years old and considered almost risque in its day, Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation of the French play about a St. Tropez gay couple who run a drag club now seems as creaky as Goulet’s joints and as blandly innocuous as Jell-O.
Replacing Daniel Davis, who was ushered out after some widely reported backstage friction, Goulet still seems to be finding his footing in the role of Georges. He flubs the occasional line, and in fact was using cue cards for his final scene at the press perf attended (something semijustified by the script). But that uncertainty plays almost like modesty and naturalistic understatement, qualities now entirely missing in a production that didn’t place subtlety high on the agenda even back in December when “Cage” first opened. And Goulet’s singing voice is still silky and warm, particularly in ballads like “Song on the Sand.”
The lack of physical confidence that cramped Beach’s performance early on has given way to greater command and ease as the temperamental diva and ersatz mother figure Albin/Zaza, evident especially in his angry refusal to be marginalized, “I Am What I Am.” But with that boosted assurance comes a hard sell that too often points to the thesp channeling his “Producers” co-star Nathan Lane, himself not always a champion of restraint. The same goes for Michael Benjamin Washington as flamboyant butler Jacob, a flaming queen now begging to be extinguished.
At least the show’s cross-dressing chorus boys, Les Cagelles, are still pumping the requisite athleticism and enthusiasm into Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, which combines circus acrobatics, raucous can-can, Rockettes-style high kicking and a tap routine cheekily lifted from “42nd Street.”
In a Broadway musical season not exactly distinguished by vigorous dance displays, that and Goulet’s debonair presence are something to be thankful for. As physically frayed as the veteran crooner is, he separates the class from the crass.