Monday, April 19, 2010

REVIEW: La Cage aux Folles

Review of the April 14 matinee preview performance. At the Longacre Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 40 minutes, with an intermission. Starring Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge, A.J. Shively, Robin de Jesus, Veanne Cox, Fred Applegate, Christine Andreas, Chris Hoch, Elena Shaddow and the Notorious Les Cagelles. Choreography by Lynne Page. Directed by Terry Johnson.

You know you've been going to theatre a long time when you can still remember seeing the original production of a show that is currently being revived!  Such is the case for me with the latest revival of La Cage aux Folles.  I was a mere (and very impressionable, still mostly in the closet) 17 year old when I saw the original production - with my first serious boyfriend (though no one but us knew).  Obviously, if you know anything about the show, you know that it was full of deep emotional meaning underneath all of the camp, comedy, drama and glitter makeup.  And for the two of us, it was amazing simply to see people like us in love and so openly at that. I think that special connection to the original is what kept me from the previous revival a few years ago. 


Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge

So why see this one?  Well, I had read that this version was smaller, less glitzy and with a darker edge to it, in a way what they did with the long-running 90's revival of Cabaret, only, clearly much less dark for obvious subject-matter reasons.  Still, I wanted to see if anything could legitimately be done to darken the relentlessly sunny Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein-Arthur Laurents show.  The musical itself has always been somewhat of a dual personality production, not unlike a drag performer and his true-life self, which I suppose is the point.  Play-wise it has always been a hybrid of traditional musical comedy and farce, family drama and camp.  And thematically, just as sparkle-dust, bugle beads and ostrich plumes converge to create the illusion  of a completely diferent, carefree persona while covering up the pain and anguish of being who you really are, the musical comedy/farce elements cover/make palatable to middle America, a true love story between two men.  It says that love is love no matter who you love, and we should embrace that joy, not hide it.  America will accept gays, it is said, as long as they are funny, unreal and super silly. 

Well, times have changed, certainly.  Gay lifestlyes are portrayed in every medium, and the very topic is no longer hush-hush.  Heck, we are even closer to gay marriage rights than ever before.  But we are still a long way off - if it isn't funny (Will and Grace), it gets buried in a larger family drama (Brothers and Sisters), it gets taken out completely (One Life to Live), or it is heavily censored (As the World Turns); and it would no longer be national news when a celebrity or sports figure admits that he or she prefers someone of the same sex in bed. 

And so, it should come as no surprise that today's "we are what we are" audiences are embracing this rather uneven revival of La Cage.  Today, we can laugh first, then be touched, and not feel so scandalized by it.  We can love La Cage openly, right?  Well, for that I admit I am thankful, because when I saw the original production, there was a heavy police presence outside the Palace Theatre, sheilding patrons from placard-carrying Americans exercising their right to free speech and open protest.  What a thrill to leave feeling so empowered that I gave a guy with a "Gays Are Sinners and Will All DIE!" sign the finger!  When I left the Longacre, there were barriers up again - this time to keep the crush of well-wishing autogtraph seekers at a safe distance from the cast.

So what about the play?  The play and music both hold up exceptionally well, particularly Herman's saccharine-sweet, but lovable score.  But, with a lot of the shock value gone now, Fierstein's book, while hilarious (we still love to laugh at the gays) as ever, is a bit quaint, and even a bit cliche.  OK, not cliche, because the original (and the play and movie it was based on) started the whole thing.  But subsequent productions, the film The Birdcage, and even The Addams Family now, have made this plot pretty obvious.  But you expect that to an extent at a revival, anyway.  And no one really tinkered with the proven, which is good.

"Les Cagelles" in "We Are What We Are"

How does it work "scaled-down" and "edgy"?  It does and it doesn't.  I really didn't see "edgy" on my visit.  I saw plently of overacting and needless and intrusive characterization where there should have been none.  But the "scaled-down" worked 80% very well.  And all of that can easily be laid to blame and praise in the hands of director Terry Johnson.  The stage never felt crowded or claustrophobic, and it was a very good choice - economically and thematically - to have the same actors portray common citizens of St. Tropez and the ultra-conservative poltician and wife determined to get rid of anything that doesn't reek of moral fortitude and family values. 

And it wasn't even a bad idea to pare down the number of "Notorious and Dangerous Les Cagelles."  Gone are any women in the ensemble (as in the original), and that works for today's audiences because we are all much more familiar wit drag queenery.  Ironically, though, the other changes that aren't so great for this production, ignored that very thing:  we know a lot more about drag than we ever did before.  You get very little sense of "danger" from the little troupe of 6 (Nick Adams, Logan Keslar, Sean Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Cunningham, Terry Lavell and Sean A. Carmon).  The one edgy "act" - a whip-cracker - never once even snaps the whip loud enough to cause a crack, let alone be dangerous with it.  And maybe because we know more about drag, we have come to expect more from it.  Not one of the six were convincing as a woman, and little was done to hide the fact that they are men playing women.  The costumes have hip, bust and butt pads, but are, to a person, so ill-fitting that their actual pecs create bigger (and better) boobs than the costumes do.  They also make no attempt at decent womanly make up; they are garrish send ups at best.  And the wigs (designed, like the make up, by Richard Mawbey) are never used to approximate real hairdos - they look like maybe they were on consignment from a high school production of Hairspray).  Only in the walking sight gag role of stage manager Francis, is there some truly decent acting, believe it or not.  It is no surprise that the actor playing the role, Chris Hoch, is way better than the material.  He is one of those actors that is great no matter the part (he was a fantastic Lord Farquaard in Shrek). Excluding Mr. Hoch, there is no way this La Cage would be "the jewel of the Riviera."  Cubic zerconia, maybe... the script does not bear out the dingy, run-down quality of the setting.

"The Birdcage" Sequence in
"La Cage aux Folles"

And then, every once in awhile, you get a glimpse of what they were probably really going for - the "We Are What We Are" silhouettes and later the legs-only in focused beams of light (all lighting designed by Nick Richings), really give the impression of women performing, and it even feels a bit ominous.  And the end "act" - Les Cagelles literally trapped in a birdcage only to daringly escape, is creepy and fun all at once.  Only then, can I say that choreographer Lynne Page's work goes beyond the predictable and pedestrian.  And it is even better in act two, when, still dressed as those birds, they swirl in and out of the action, setting and resetting the stage.  It offers an ominous reminder that they are still there, on the verge of discovery by a poisonous man of power.  So, it can be and actually is a bit edgy.


Douglas Hodge - "I Am What I Am"

The other chief problem I have with this production is co-star Douglas Hodge as Albin/Zsa Zsa.  I don't care how many awards he has already won, or the ones he could very well get in the future.  His performance in Act One is so over the top - he mugs and prances in a way that Broadway might not have seen since the Benny Hill years.  He does every voice he can think of, including a very un-funny send up of Harvey Fierstein at his first entrance.  He changes voice more than a 70's Robin Williams after a snort of coke, and even resorts to the saying a word then mouthing it again in faux anguish, big enough for the folks attending A Little Night Music across the street to see.  The result is at times unintelligible dialogue, and a performance so out of focus that when he finally calms down enough to put on "A Little More Mascara" he is fully out of breath and even less convincing as a focused human being.  He is simply not a drag queen on par with what the dialogue says he/she is.  There is no way "she" would be asked to play a female role in Shakespeare, let alone have a grand reputation for having once played Salome.  Hodge isn't even that good at doing a Marilyn Monroe send up (and it is time to retire the stage hand bringing on a fan to have a windblown effect - Xanadu did it the best, now let it go!).  As far as problems go with La Cage aux Folles, a set of bad drag queens pretty much says it all.  Right?


Wrong!  Act One is a mess.  But Act Two is a downright revelation!  Talk about an about-face.  Act two takes us mercifully away from the nightclub and into the streets of St. Tropez and most importantly more of the home of Albin and Georges.  Yes!  There is high comedy and farce here, but there is also much emotion, sentimentality and truth, too.  And here is where this production really scores.  The Douglas Hodge of Act One is gone, and the award-winning Douglas Hodge is in his place.  He has brought the whole Zsa Zsa -as-defense-mechanism thing down about 50 notches, lets his own quirky accent and inflection take over, and he shows amazing depth as an actor.  The minute he makes his first entrance in act two, you see a man in pain, devestated by his own child, and still fiercely protective of his whole family.  In short, he is family values personified.  (And yes, his act once closer, the famous anthem, "I Am What I Am" offers a glimpse of what is to come, but only in days later retrospect.)

Robin de Jesus as Jacob

Here, too, his maid Jacob (Robin de Jesus) also embraces the farce of the piece.  In act one, Mr. de Jesus relies solely on a cliched performance as an Hispanic drag queen wannabe.  To see the same exact thing, only miles better, check out John Leguizamo in To Wong Foo...  The result in the first half is that de Jesus looks alternately uncomfortable and ill-prepared for the role.  What a difference an intermission and a decent costume (all designed by Matthew Wright) make!  Mr. de Jesus nearly steals the show with just the right balance of camp and farce, made all the better because his performance is now tempered by a grounding realism that is absent in the first half.

Act two also highlights the ultra-condervative Dindons gamely played by Veanne Cox and Fred Applegate, both of who do double duty as the more progressive cafe owners.  Ms. Cox proves again why she is such a respected, versatile actress - her timing, slow burn and physicality are impeccable, and she takes what could be a lame duck role and makes it thrive even as bigger chaos goes on around her.  Some of the bigness comes from Mr. Applegate, who is a hiss-inducing villain of the first order, as he blusters about, shoving his agenda down everyone's throat, and maniacally taking perverse joy in cowing his wife and daughter (the lovely, but largely bland Elena Shaddow).  Then, too, is the son who causes all of this trouble in the first place played well, but not all that specially by A.J. Shively, who is too likeable to get too mad at, but not likeable enough to really root for, either.  (His is a rather bland Broadway debut, I'm afraid.)

Christine Andreas and Company: "The Best of Times (Is Now)"

In what amounts to a high impact walk-on role, Christine Andreas steals every scene she's in, even when she's just sitting.  And as Jacqueline, restauranteur to the wealthy, she exudes a class, style and cunning that neary stops the show.  There is an extra breath of life each and every time she enters and exits.  It is very telling that at one point she is standing next to "Zsa Zsa," and you can tell instantly that she, not he, would be the better drag queen!

Kelsey Grammer as Georges

OK, so what about the other star of the show, Kelsey Grammer?  Let me just list the adjectives: revelatory, distinctive, charming, charismatic, brilliant.  He is funny, sharp, and an incredibly good crooner (he's no Sinatra, but his voice is magnificent).  But most importantly, throughout BOTH acts of the show, he is giving a grounded in reality, down to earth performance that is notable for many things, but most appreciably for its understated grace.  His Georges is completely believeable as night club owner, lover to an eccentric and bitter queen, a loving, doting father, and as a pillar of the community.  Were the role flashier, I'd call him a shoo-in for a Tony nod (and I am still hoping he gets one, though history says it will go to Hodge, like the other Zsa Zsas before him).  When he sings "Song on the Sand," you fall in love with him, and when he sings "Look Over There," you are reduced to tears, all schmaltz acted right through.  I am so glad I got to see him in this role.  And I can't wait to see what he does with Albin/Zsa Zsa in six months when he switches roles.  I hope he can fight the urge to over do it, and bring some of his grounding quality to it to balance things out.

This La Cage is smaller, definitely, and that works for it immensely.  It's a shame that the drag queens that make it "notorious" are such a, well, drag.  Thank Heaven for its great score, leading man, and an act two that makes act one worth sitting through.

Grade: B+ (C+ for Act One and A+ for Act Two)

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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