Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul returns to review La Cage Aux Folles and gets flustered running into a legend. Guest Star: Harvey Fierstein.
For the last two weeks at the gym, I have been training for an important moment that happened this past Sunday. If you saw my intensity and enthusiasm running on the treadmill at New York Sports Club, you would have been impressed, and irritated by my occasional shouting of lyrics. You see, my iPod has been cranking out the original Broadway cast recording of La Cage aux Folles. That’s how big a queen fan of the show I am.
In Texas in the late ‘80s, I marveled at two touring productions starring Hollywood Square’s Peter Marshall (better than you imagine, and better than Robert Goulet in the ’04 revival). As an out teenager on the precipice of gay adulthood, just learning to be comfortable with my sexuality, I will never forget my reaction at the end of the opening number “We Are What We Are.” The seemingly all-female impersonator chorus, known as Les Cagelles, sing,
Look under our frocks, girdles and jocks, proving we are what we are.
A combination of the sheer over-the-top production values, tap dancing and clever lyrics worked me into a frenzy. And then Les Cagelles strip off their wigs, and for the first time I found out the group was indeed a mix of real and pretend women. And I gasped out loud. Gasping at campy gay stage theatrics had become a trademark of mine since I was nine, and my mother took me to see a Vegas-style review at the State Fair Music Hall that began when a gigantic neon sign lit the stage with the star’s name—Ann-Margret. Wow.
My love runs deep for this campy show about a long time gay couple, Georges, the owner of a Saint-Tropez nightclub, and his partner and star drag queen Albin who face a slew of obstacles when their son Jean-Michel announces his marriage the daughter of a conservative politician. It’s about love and family and being true to yourself. And I vowed that when I was 60 and retired and returned to my community theatre roots, I would play Albin just so I could sing the lyrics from the show-stopping closing Act I number “I Am What I Am”
I am what I am
And what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck sometimes the aces sometimes the deuces
It’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit
One life so it’s time to open up your closet
Life’s not worth a dam till you can shout out
I am what I am
Talk about a life anthem. Thanks Gloria Gaynor.
Before Sunday evening’s performance at the Longacre Theatre, my nervous anticipation was comically heightened by running into Harvey Fierstein at a park bench across the street. Although he may not know it specifically, Harvey helped me come out as teen as the author of Torch Song Trilogy and later the book of La Cage. I adore him like a crazy, lovable uncle, although I become a complete noodle in his presence—always unable to muster any sort of courage to speak with him. And I couldn’t decide if it was a good sign or not that he was there to see the show—could it be in trouble and they wanted Doc Harvey’s prognosis?
There was little need to worry. Overall, this production is an entertaining romp that makes some bold choices—all of them not entirely successful. But if there’s one reason to see the show, it’s Douglas Hodge as an adorably vulnerable Albin—there’s a reason why he won raves and awards across the pond at the production in London. From his first song “A Little More Masacara,” he infuses the role with honesty and just the appropriate touches of camp. Like a true cabaret chanteuse, he may not have the prettiest voice or the prettiest face, but he’s got an emotional insight to his framing of the lyrics. Hands down the best Albin I have ever seen, and something to aspire to 20+ years from now in my audition at the Provincetown Playhouse.
Kelsey Grammer as Georges has a hard time matching Hodge’s emotional depth. That’s not to say that Grammer is miscast, but at times he seems uncomfortable—as if this might be a Frasier dream sequence. As the opening emcee, he’s surprisingly understated and lackluster—maybe nervous?—but all that thankfully dissipates in Act II. Unfortunately, he’s not initially helped playing off a staid A.J. Shively as his son Jean-Michel—although Shively’s butt fills out the 70s flare jeans spectacularly.
In one of the tougher segues during “With Anne on My Arm,” Georges has to truly understand Jean-Michel’s love for his fiancé and want the best for his son—so much so that he’s willing to betray the love of his life in the next song. It’s always a fast and tough transition, and requires a Georges who can portray the emotional complexity in facial expressions only. Grammer doesn’t yet seem up to the challenge, although his connection with Albin in Act II makes me think he’s capable, but just needs to relax.
If Hodge is the number one reason to see the show, Robin de Jesús as Jacob, Albin’s French maid, is a close runner-up. The actor best known for his role as Sonny in In The Heights unleashes his campy comic genius here channeling his inner Rosie Perez.
Everything seems tightly packed in this production—the stage is tiny and the set are often bleakly minimalist (the most depressing view of the Mediterranean I’ve ever seen). The tightest packed of all is Les Cagelles—and I’m not talking about, as RuPaul like to say, “snakes on a plane.” I’m talking their six-pack abs. This is the hunkiest, most muscular and testosterone filled group of “female” impersonators I have ever seen. No mistaking these men for ladies—not with those biceps (unless you’re Jillian from The Biggest Loser). Their bold masculinity, though sexy in a Chicago meets Cabaret kind of way, is completely at odds with the setting in the South of France ‘70s and even the lyrics:
We are what we are – Half a brassiere, half a suspender.
Half real and half fluff,
You’ll find it tough guessing our gender.
Hmm, not so tough boys. And because there are only six of them, all boys, the original magic of trying to suss out gender is sucked right out of the production. That’s too bad because it takes away a complex layer that made original productions of the show so engaging.
Even after all these years of listening to the recording, I did have a revelation. A song that I never paid much attention to “Look Over There”—about appreciating the people in your life who make sacrifices to love you—touched me in a new way.
How often is someone concerned
With the tiniest thread of your life?
Concerned with whatever you feel
And whatever you touch?
Look over there.
Look over there.
Somebody cares that much.
So count all the loves who will love me
From now ’til the end of my life,
And when you have added the loves
Who have loved me before,
Look over there.
Look over there.
Somebody loves me more…
And I did look to my left. And there was Chef squeezing my hand. A few tears ran down my cheeks. For the first time in my life, I know what those lyrics are about and whom I can sing them to. I think I’m going to make a terrific Albin one day.