For that, much credit is due to set designer Tim Shortall, part of the team that first worked on this production at London's Menier Chocolate Factory. He has ingeniously created the illusion of even less distancing space by blending the auditorium's architectural flourishes with the onstage St. Tropez nightclub, where most of the hilarious action occurs.
The club is owned by Georges (Kelsey Grammer), and its headliners are his long-time lover Albin -- who performs as the female Zaza (Douglas Hodge) -- and the glitzy and glittery Cagelles (Nicholas Cunningham, Nick Adams, Logan Keslar, Sean Patrick Doyle, Terry Lavell, and Sean A. Carmon, each and everyone startling while executing Lynne Page's spirited choreography.)
But the club's survival, and more importantly, Georges and Albin's passionate union are threatened when George's 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively) announces he's about to marry Anne (Elena Shaddow), the daughter of an ultraconservative government minister. Worse yet, her strait-laced parents are about to arrive for an overnight visit -- which means Albin temporarily vacating the premises (not to mention a lot of redecorating).
Perhaps the biggest question mark on audience's minds is how Kelsey Grammer will fare as Georges. The answer is very successfully. He proves to be nothing like his TV alter-ego Frasier Crane or the other preening sitcom men he's played to acclaim and awards. Grammer's display of devotion to Albin and frustration at the predicament Jean-Michel puts him in are completely genuine. He sings his few numbers with the same compassion, most sensitively Herman's lush "Song on the Sand."
Less of a question mark is Hodge, certainly not to anyone who saw him hone the role in London (where he took home the Olivier Award). An actor of broad capabilities, he's more than capable at being a robust broad (aided by Matthew Wright's sparkling gowns and Richard Mawbey's confectionary wigs). Here, his Albin/Zaza exhibits effeminate flourishes that reach their peak in the seafront scene where he attempts to duplicate John Wayne's walk. Along the way Hodge also does knee-slapping send-ups of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. But the performance's peak is -- as it should be -- his emotional delivery of the first-act closer "I Am What I Am." His rendition brims with vocal nuances, and Hodge eventually nails it to the rafters.
Under Johnson's sassy direction, the entire cast gives the show its all. Robin De Jesus stands out as fey maid Jacob. Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox hit their marks as the unraveling Dindons (they also double as local café owners), as do Christine Andreas as flamboyant restaurateur Jacqueline, and Shively and Shaddow as the young couple.
Indeed, when the players take stage in Act II to belt out the rousing anthem, "The Best of Times (is Now)," it's impossible to argue with the sentiment.