Why bring back “La Cage aux Folles” — a major hit musical of the 1983-84 Broadway season, but certainly not a classic like “Gypsy” or “Fiddler on the Roof” — only five years after its first Broadway revival? Especially when that 2004-05 stint proved a tired and unnecessary affair, suggesting that the original production (with its six Tony Awards) was stronger than the material. The producers of this new edition, which premiered at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007, have a convincing answer: It’s funny, heartwarming and terrific.
“La Cage” is the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical in which one of the stars memorably confesses that when the going gets tough he simply puts on a little more mascara. Director Terry Johnson succeeds so well here by putting on both more and less mascara simultaneously. More mascara by letting Douglas Hodge, in the guise of the flamboyant drag-queen Albin (aka Zaza), play the role like, well, more of a flamboyant drag-queen than in prior major productions. Less mascara in that this is a stripped-down, mid-budget production; all those sequins and all that glitz that characterized Broadway’s prior visits to St. Tropez have been toned down, allowing the audience to concentrate more on the tender and relatively simple story at the heart of the piece. (But not simplistic; “La Cage” is a masterpiece of dramaturgy compared to the similarly plotted musical they made out of “The Addams Family.”)
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The heart of the piece: that’s what we get in this “La Cage,” and that’s what makes Johnson’s production so tenderly affecting. The original — acknowledging the socio-political temper of the times — seemed to go to great lengths to present its leading men as not actually a (sexual) couple. The first revival, for offstage reasons, seemed to feature leading men who actively hated each other. Here, finally, we have a realistic and believable pair who have been devotedly living with each other for a quarter century. And that makes “La Cage” more emotionally effective than before.
The producers are fortunate to have imported Hodge, who won an Olivier for this role. He comes on looking and acting like Colleen Dewhurst playing farce, and proceeds to offer a performance at once grandly over-the-top (in the first act) and emotionally grabbing (in the second). The surprise of the evening comes from Kelsey Grammer as Georges. He plays the comedy and acts the host perfectly well, but in “Song on the Sand” and “Look Over There” he gets to the heart: Here is a man earnestly and enduringly in love.
Supporting cast is almost uniformly excellent, led by fine comedians Fred Applegate (as the right-wing zealot of a prospective in-law) and Veanne Cox (as his not-so-straightlaced wife). A.J. Shively plays the son Jean-Michel with more spirit and less plasticity than usual, as does Elena Shaddow (Fanny to Applegate’s Panisse in the recent Encores production of that other French Mediterranean musical, “Fanny”). The big-voiced Christine Andreas is all but invisible in the role of restaurateur Jacqueline, while Robin De Jesus — who was a prime asset in “In the Heights” — seems to have wandered into the wrong musical as the maid-butler Jacob. Les Cagelles of the affair make a prime sextuplet; each and every one of them enhances the evening’s entertainment value.
Choreographer Lynne Page keeps those Cagelles amusingly busy, whipping the title song to a delightful frenzy, while the U.K. design team’s compact but effective production perfectly suits the directorial concept. Musical director Todd Ellison capably leads his eight-piece band from a pair of balconies flanking the set. Jason Carr did the reorchestration, which is considerably more successful than his reduction of “A Little Night Music” across the street.
So chalk up this almost-too-soon revival as a victory for its producers. Director Johnson, last here in 2002 with Kathleen Turner and that ill-begotten “The Graduate,” is warmly welcomed back to Broadway. But mostly one should raise a glass of champagne — not the watered-down stuff — to Herman and Fierstein. Their big, glitzy musical comedy hit of 1983 turns out to have a tender heart.