Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THEATER: La Cage Aux Folles

"We are what we are," goes the bold-for-1982 anthem of La Cage Aux Folles. That lovely music still holds up for this 2010 revival, but it's challenged now by the Broadway sensibilities of another line, "It's rather gaudy, but it's also rather grand," in that the show -- especially under the mute direction of Terry Johnson -- often confuses panache and flash. In other words, as fun as the six transvestite dancing Cagelles may be (and Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Sean Patrick Doyle, Karl Warden, Terry Lavell, and Yurel Echezarreta are all a hoot), it's not until the Act I finale that the show rings true and provides some real dramatic stakes.

On behalf of his son Jean-Michel (an indistinct A. J. Shively), Georges (Christopher Sieber) has asked his lover, Albin, to leave for one day so that they might pretend to be straight for the rigidly conservative family of his Jean-Michel's fiancee, Anne (Elena Shaddow); Albin, feeling rightly betrayed sends away the limber Cagelles, pulls off his wig before the audience, and personalizes the show, singing "I Am What I Am." And though Douglas Hodges won the 2010 Tony for this part, it's hard to imagine this meaning more to or being performed better by anyone other than Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book and has now, almost three decades later, assumed the role), a man who makes no apologies -- nor needs to -- for his unique, gravel-pitched voice and impish, tongue-wagging presence. He, and his believable chemistry with co-star Sieber, are not at all gaudy, though they're sadly not a grand enough reason to revisit La Cage on their own.

As impressive as the new Georges and Albin are, they're still stuck in an unbalanced musical (in which a solid first act is marred by a hasty second) that's been unambitiously directed by Johnson, who perhaps feared so much of being gaudy that he -- and the limp set designer Tim Shortall -- have left the stage mostly empty. This, in turn, results in a lot of hammy attempts from the actors to fill that space, none more egregious than that of the butler/maid Jacob (Wilson Jermaine Heredia), who appears to be doing a bad impression of Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen . . . doing a bad impression . . ., although Anne's one-dimensionally blustery father, M. Dindon (Mike McShane) comes close, especially compared to his manically mousy wife (an exceptional Allyce Beasley). When Georges and Albin are alone together, they're charming; too bad they're surrounded by farcical characters in a show that never builds up enough steam to become a farce: instead, they're stuck playing dress-up, wasting their time with instantly forgettable songs like "Cocktail Counterpoint" and "The Best of Times" instead of the comedy of "Masculinity" or emotion of "Look Over There."

If you've never seen one of the adaptations of Jean Poiret's farce La Cage Aux Folles, either this musical or the film comedy The Birdcage, and if you can find a discount of 30-40% on tickets (that's about how much is aesthetically missing or unpolished in the current Broadway run), then you should rush to the Longacre. For everyone else, cross your fingers for a re-recording of the cast album, so that you might hear what Fierstein and his buttery counterpart, Sieber, bring to the table.

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