Let's Talk (And Sing) About Family Values...
La Cage Aux Folles
Starlight Theatre Association
A particular irony struck me last night while watching the premiere of the George Hamilton touring company of "La Cage Aux Folles" at the Starlight Theatre: here we were, watching a story about gay families struggling to exist with integrity and love in the face of forces that would sweep them forever away from the daylight world, while in Tampa the real-life equivalent of those same forces were gathering with the most blatantly anti-gay agenda in twenty years. In a way, it seemed almost unreal, how two entirely different sets of ideals could exist in the same country at the same time. But while one group preached conformity, the other celebrated diversity. One doubled down on dogma, driving away any hint of compromise. The other envisioned a world where Family is what you make it, where the full magnificent range of humanity all have a place in this world. The two worlds could not be further apart, but only one leaves room for the other.
"La Cage" is, of course, based on the original by Jean Poiret which since its original incarnation in 1973 has found its way across the Atlantic, toured the world, spawned multiple movies and eventually found itself a musical on Broadway, with the help of the always able (and former drag queen himself) Harvey Fierstein doing the book, and Jerry Herman bringing to bear the same musical skills that brought him such acclaim in "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" . In its current revival, Mr. Hamilton has taken the lead, assisted by a very skilled cast and crew.
The story, a modern twist on the classic farce, is this: Georges (Hamilton) is the owner of La Cage Aux Folles, the hottest drag club in St Tropez. His longtime partner Albin (Christopher Sieber) is the headline act: the glamorous Zaza. As the story begins, Georges' son Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney) returns home to announce he is engaged to Anne (Katie Donohue) ... who is the daughter of Dindon (Bernard Burak Sheredy), head of the extremely anti-gay "Tradition, Family and Morality Party" who has sworn to shut down all drag clubs. Jean-Michel begs his father to "de-gay" their home, and pretend to be a dignified heterosexual for just one night while the prospective in-laws come to visit. Reluctantly, he agrees. What follows is two acts of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, escalating outrageousness, and some of the best songs Mr. Herman has ever penned for the stage.
Drag is, by its very nature, all about the glamour, and this touring production does not skimp. Using a simple theatrical proscenium as its framing device (and also providing a space for the small but talented musical ensemble), they manage to do a lot with a relatively small space, whirling us from stage front to stage back, to the apartment above and out into the San Tropez night. The in-house drag troupe "Les Cagelles" put on a marvelous performance, filled with humor and style and sometimes jaw-dropping athleticism (well, you try doing some of that stuff in heels). Rounding out the cast are the delightfully outrageous Jeigh Madjus as Jacob the butler/maid, and Gay Marshall as restauranteur Jacqueline, who steps in at the last moment to save the day.
The performances of the troupe were polished and professional, and if there were any technical or performance hitches, they escaped this viewer's attention. Hamilton is a seasoned performer, hitting the character right on the nose throughout the performance. The balance between humor and pathos is carefully maintained, and the pace is kept brisk without feeling rushed. The highlights of the evening, of course, were the performances of the show's best-known numbers, "I Am What I Am," and "The Best of Times". Sieber proves himself more than equal to each of them, and turns in a wonderful performance.
"La Cage" is a wonderful story, and in the current touring revival, it is wonderfully presented. A fine cast, splendid production design, and memorable music all come together for a show which I have no doubt will one day be acknowledged one of the great warhorses of Broadway. Eschewing polemics in favor of a more welcoming ideal, "La Cage" presents us a vision of the world as it is, and as it could be. Around me, the mostly heterosexual audience laughed and applauded and - I like to think - came away touched by the story and the characters in it. As glad as I was to have the show come to town, part of me wished it was down in Tampa where, I cannot help but think, there were people who now more than ever need to see it.