‘La Cage Aux Folles:’ naughty, bawdy and much needed now

05/30/2012 12:00 AM

06/01/2012 11:03 AM

Could the national tour of “La Cage Aux Folles” be any timelier for North Carolina?

The musical came to Belk Theater Tuesday night, at the end of the month in which:

•  Voters strongly endorsed a state constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage;
•  A Maiden pastor became nationally infamous for suggesting homosexuals be confined in electrified concentration camps until they died off;
•  And the New York Times profiled Robert Spitzer, the retired Columbia University professor of psychiatry and psychology who apologized for a “fatally flawed” study that said gay people could be “cured” if they had proper motivation.

When the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical opened on Broadway in 1983, it seemed daring: Albin’s declaration “I Am What I Am,” a ringing denouncement of anyone who challenged his sexual choice, was an antidote to the harsh judgments most of society made about gay people.

Optimists who cheered those sentiments at the time (myself included) probably thought they’d be dated three decades later. Yet the words rang out Tuesday with the same ferocious reproof, and they seemed just as necessary.

Christopher Sieber began that showstopping Act 1 closer quietly, as if discovering both his pain and the strength needed to get through it. Heretofore he had sung and acted with abandon, like the love child of Jerry Lewis and Ethel Merman. (This is a compliment under the tour’s circumstances, as we’ll see.) Now he showed Albin’s core, built to a rousing climax and stormed offstage to a roar of audience approval.

This version, directed by Terry Johnson, doesn’t spend much time with matters of the heart. It’s broader, bawdier and brawnier than the ’80s original. An example: Some of the chorus girls actually were girls in the original; wigs came off at the end of the show to reveal how brilliantly men in drag had fooled us. This tour gives us half as many Cagelles and makes them all flamboyant men in boas and bustiers.

Sieber’s over-the-top presentation and milking of gags suits the tone of this interpretation. Opposite him, George Hamilton exudes unruffled charm as the club owner who pretends to be straight so his son can marry a conservative politician’s daughter. There’s a knowing amiability to his performance; he’s both Georges, soothing the volatile Albin, and George, amiably trying to balance his outrageous co-star, and we appreciate him doubly.

The scaled-down size of the production suits the story well: The small orchestra, now playing above the stage in two boxes instead of in the pit, really seems like a night club band. The actors use the whole stage and parts of the auditorium: They toss beach balls into the crowd, come into the audience to address theatergoers and exit up aisles, further reinforcing the illusion that we’re in a club.

And though the setting is St. Tropez, “La Cage” remains a quintessentially big American musical. Albin lives out the greatest of all American dreams: To reinvent yourself and rise to prominence without accepting restrictions of class, race, gender or (in his case) sexual stereotypes. That he does so as a drag queen doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t.

Speaking of drag queens, a glamorous “mistress” of ceremonies warmed up the crowd beforehand, chiding latecomers. (This drew applause.) She fired off topical jokes and ended by saying, “Is there anybody coming out here tonight? Oh, wait: This is North Carolina! Is there anybody going in?”

Given the times, that joke seemed pretty funny. Thirty years from now, it won’t.

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