Review: “La Cage Aux Folles” No Longer Groundbreaking, Still Heartwarming

The world has changed a great deal since Jean Poiret first wrote La Cage Aux Folles, a play about a drag show nightclub owner and his lover, back in 1973. Thanks to subsequent hit movie versions, as well as a Broadway musical based on the original play in 1983, drag queens and gay couples, once taboo in most mainstream entertainment, are now part of the daily lexicon. And while gay visibility is nowhere near where it should be in America or most of the world, we’re better off than we were nearly forty years ago.

So bravo to Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, who gave us the first Broadway musical of La Cage Aux Folles, and are now back with a big Broadway revival. The original La Cage was a trailblazer, debuting thirteen years before Angel and Collins romanced each other with a promise of a thousand sweet kisses in Jonathan Larson‘s Rent. But while La Cage may have been groundbreaking for its unabashed gay themes, at its heart the show is a big, brash musical on par with classic fare like Hello, Dolly and Oklahoma.

The plot centers around a devoted gay couple, Georges and Albin, who run a club on the French Riviera, and make their home above it. But Albin, of course, is only Albin some of the time, as he spends much of the show as his alter ego, Zaza, the fabulous prima donna of their nightclub.

In the current revival playing at the Longacre Theater, Albin is portrayed by British comic actor Douglas Hodge, who doesn’t really have a Broadway-quality voice, but has personality to spare, while his lover is played by Kelsey Grammer.

Readers of AfterElton.com are probably familiar with Grammer’s recent remarks about the show’s gay romance and his conservative political affiliations. I certainly have my opinions about that, as do most of you, but my job is to review his performance in the show, and so that’s what I’ll do.

The basic plot of La Cage is simple and sitcom-like, but it works, as Georges’ biological son from a drunken encounter with a showgirl (a pleasing A.J. Shively) returns home with news he’s getting married. Naturally, the girl in question is the daughter of the most anti-gay, “family values” politician on the map, and the in-laws-to-be will be coming over to spend the night. The son, Jean-Michel, is hoping that Albin will disappear before their guests arrive.

All of the backstage drama takes a backseat, however, to the fabulous nightclub numbers performed by Zaza and the Cagelles, the six drag queens who make up the show’s chorus. Those numbers are the best part of the show, in particular when the curtain goes up to reveal the Cagelles all dressed as birds and posing in a cage.

These men are tireless, electric dancers, and while it may cause a sympathetic cringe or two to see the barrage of jumps that land in splits, it’s one of those Broadway moments you will remember forever. The choreography is muscular and exciting, and the Cagelles perform it perfectly.

It should be noted this is quite a pared-down version of the show, which in its original form was as big and glitzy as an MGM movie musical. The current production places the show in a cramped theater, with six Cagelles when there are usually many more, all of which add to the feeling that this is a less a high-end showroom and more the kind of drag act you would see in the basement of a bar.

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