“I beg you–open your eyes,” we’re entreated as the overture fades; “You have arrived at ’La Cage Aux Folles!” The very first bona-fide “Broadway” (or more aptly–’direct’ from Broadway,) production I ever saw was this ground-breaking “Bonanza and Mad Extravaganza“ based on the 1973 French farce by Jean Poiret. Never before had a musical depicted two gay men in a long term loving relationship as its leads. That original opus ran for over four years, winning six Tony awards–including “Best Musical”, with Composer Jerry Herman being awarded “Best Score” while “Best Book” honors went to Librettist Harvey Fierstein.
Set in sunny San Tropez, the action centers around George and Albin–life partners who own the sensational drag club of the title, renowned as “the pride of St. Tropez, the envy of the cabaret world, the jewel of the Riviera”. George is the M.C. while Albin is the club’s main attraction (–in the guise of ‘the flamboyant ‘Madame Zaza”, that is.) Backed by a chorus of six “notorious and dangerous” ‘Cagelles’, things seem to be going along well for the pair. At least until Jean-Michel, (George‘s son from his one heterosexual encounter with a Chorus Girl twenty years earlier,) announces his upcoming marriage to the daughter of an ultra-conservative politician. (“Oh, Georges,” Albin frets at one point ‘Our baby is getting married–where oh where did we go wrong?!”)Without a doubt, a terrific part of the show’s success over the years is due to the disarmingly witty score by Master Songwriter Jerry Herman. Responsible for other audience faves like “Hello Dolly”, “Mack And Mabel” and “Mame”, Herman is a genuine American treasure who has created wonders working in this uniquely American art form, and “La Cage” is certainly no exception. Featuring such first-class old fashioned ‘feel good’ melodies as “The Best Of Times Is Now”, “With You On My Arm” and the romantic “Song On The Sand”, this ranks among the very best Broadway has showcased in the last few decades at least. There’s even the obligatory (for a Jerry Herman score) homage to dressing up with “Put A Little More Mascara On” (Think of “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” in “Hello Dolly”, only referring more to ‘bugle beads, ankle-straps and ostrich plumes‘.) Here, our gender-bending hero transforms into his glamorous alter ego before our very eyes.
Impressively re-imagined, the overall look for this interpretation is more intimate and genuine as opposed to the broad, fanciful feel of previous incarnations. Even the Cagelles sport attire that’s more along the lines of what your local neighborhood drag performer would wear contrasted against the sumptuous and silky samples of haute couture presented in that first outing. Similarly, this time the group is entirely male, which is the way the ‘collaborators’ had wanted it in the original. Conversely, back then several women were incorporated into the line; yet this actually made it kind of fun for audience members such as myself to play a gender guessing game of “Is She Or isn’t He”, until the curtain call when all uncertainty was answered once and for all. No worries though–by all reports, this more down-to-earth approach hasn’t diminished the spectacle one bit!
This more pragmatic costuming also applies to the great ‘Zaza” who, rather than masquerading in a series of over the top but often inane get-ups, appears (as many professional female-impersonaters do) in a series of celebrity-inspired roles. Among them are Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Anne Margaret, and of course, Judy Garland (–this latter representation seems to be the one in which the dynamic Act One closer, “I Am What I Am”, is delivered.)
Occurring just after Albin–about to go on as Zaza–is told by Georges and Jean-Michel that he is not invited to the upcoming engagement dinner, word is that early on Fierstein proposed that this anthem be delivered out of drag sans any sort of pretense. However, more conservative members of the creative team believed that such an approach–frankly presenting a gay man declaring his independence, might be potentially too off-putting to a wider audience at the time, so they settled for his simply doffing his wig at the end and storming out into the house as the curtain lowers. Was this approach the right one to take? Hard to say. Regardless of what the character is dressed like though, few can dispute it’s the lyrics and the intensity with which they’re sung that makes this an awesomely effective moment.In fact, for all its notoriety for being the most recognizable hit “La Cage” has produced, “I Am What I Am” isn’t the number that expresses the real thematic ‘heart’ of the story. That honor goes to Georges gentler second act piece, “Look Over There”, when he reminds his son of the depth of devotion the same parent he’s marginalizing has shown for him throughout his life. Indeed, at its core, the story is really more about the self-sacrifices one couple is willing to make to ensure the happiness of their beloved son. Looked at in this light, “La Cage Aux Folles” could be the perfect family entertainment.
www.telecharge.com/lacage , or visiting the Longacre Theatre box office.