Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Theater Review: La Cage aux Folles

La Cage aux Folles, the enormously popular French-language film (1978) based on a stage play about a middle-aged gay couple who rendezvous with a right-wing zealot and his family, is certifiably indestructible. The original film generated a sequel and, in 1983, an extremely successful Broadway musical. Then, in 1986, the legendary Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the superb comedy team who separated in the 60s in order to pursue individual careers in Hollywood, joined forces again to give us a variation of the story, The Birdcage, the hilarious movie that starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. There was, too, a revival of the musical in 2004, but that production failed to ignite. However, the good news is that the latest, fresh reworking of La Cage aux Folles (imported from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and meticulously directed by Terry Johnson) at the Longacre is a delectable delight.

When the curtain goes up, La Cage’s proprietor, Georges (an excellent Kelsey Grammer) and six of his lively and athletic Cagelles tell us (music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman, of course) that this is a club in which “you may be dancing with a girl who needs a shave” and where “eccentric couples always punctuate the scene.” The location, after all, is exotic St. Tropez; and so, it’s appropriate that the sets by Tim Shortall (strikingly lit by Nick Richings) appear to give off a chromatic glow.

Harver Fierstein’s apt libretto introduces us next to Albin (the extraordinary Douglas Hodge), who has been Georges’s partner for years; and we watch hypnotically as he begins to meticulously transform himself (with the valuable help of Matthew Wright, the costume designer) from an insecure man into a popular drag star, the audience’s favorite: “With a rare combination of girlish excitement and manly restraint/I position my assortment of powders and pencils and paint.” He puts “a little more mascara on,” and the conversion is complete. What Hodge makes perfectly clear here is that his quotidian insecurities appear to disappear by the act of changing into a woman. But this conversion has its dangers, too.

Although Georges and Albin have been together for a couple of decades, the two have different temperaments. Georges is masculine, reserved, thoughtful; Albin is moody, swishy, sometimes hysterical. Together, though, they have successfully reared Georges’s son, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively), the result of a single heterosexual experience. Complications develop, however, when Jean-Michel announces that he is engaged to be married to Anne (Elena Shaddow), the daughter of self-righteous parents (performed here by Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox). And it’s an emotionally devastating moment when it’s suggested that Albin absent himself from the engagement festivities. This horrific news leads to the powerful Act I finale, where Albin sings that “Your life is a sham/’Til you can shout — out loud/I am what I am!”

But from confusion must come some sort of serenity and order. The apartment is spruced up: stark furnishings are put in place and a huge, monastic cross is hung. A half-naked, garble-tongued houseboy (Robin de Jesús) is ordered to wear shoes (which cause him to fall flat on his face). And when Anne’s parents finally do arrive, we’re treated to a sidesplitting explosion of comic invention. When, at a climactic moment, Ann’s ultraconservative father ends up in drag, you feel that somehow this is how it should be. At curtain call, as the entire cast sings that “the best of times is now, is now, is now...,” you might believe for the moment that in a world of palpable, credible, often horrific reality, this bit of magic potion has its proper place.