Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s
La Cage aux Folles, now at the Kennedy Center as part of the national tour, is the only show to win the Tony Award three times, once for Best Musical in 1984, and twice for Best Revival of a Musical in 2005 and 2010. And one can see why in Terry Johnson’s fast-paced production: even if the show is slightly old-fashioned in structure, it showcases lovely ballads and high-energy, colorful cabaret sequences that get your pulse racing.
The plot, based on the French film on the same name (and familiar to many Americans from The Birdcage), focuses on nightclub owner Georges (George Hamilton) and partner Albin (Christopher Sieber) — who performs in the club as local drag superstar Zaza.
The couple have been together for decades and raised Georges’ now-grown son, Jean-Michel (Billy Harrington Tighe). When Jean-Michel comes home and announces that he is about to marry a woman named Anne (Allison Blair McDowell) and has invited her parents to meet them, a culture clash is put in motion. Not only are the lovely Anne’s parents conservative, but her father, M. Dindon (Bruce Winant), is a politician crusading to close down the drag clubs of Saint Tropez.
The big question hanging over the production for many is whether Hamilton is suited to the role of Georges. The tall, stunningly handsome (and quite bronzed) Hamilton still carries himself with innate grace, and he is quite engaging in the role. Indeed, he is a perfect straight man (pun not intended) for Sieber’s flamboyant, wildly comic performance as Albin. Their chemistry is tangible and supports the frequent shifts in tone from farce to pathos.
The actor’s singing and rather stiff dancing prove a bit more problematic. His range is measured not in octaves, but in notes. Some of Herman’s tunes, such as act one’s “Song in the Sand,” are not particularly demanding, so Hamilton gets by. However, in his big ballad, “Look Over There,” where some real singing is required, Hamilton sounds strained on the big notes.
A great deal of the production’s success belongs to the Cagelles, the nine male dancer-singers who do astonishing work as the club’s entertainers. Lynne Page’s choreography has them performing splits, swinging from bars in a massive birdcage, and moving, moving, moving. Their cabaret numbers also get the large audience moving, clapping along, and dodging the dancer’s balls (the massive, ultra-light orbs flung into the orchestra section, that is).
There’s also much joy to be taken from the musical numbers, many of which have become standards over the years. Zaza’s “I Am What I Am,” which closes act one, movingly combines vulnerability and defiance. And the rousing anthem “The Best of Times” remains as thrilling as ever.
In the end, La Cage aux Folles proves to be a show for the ages, or in Hamilton’s case, the apparently ageless.