When “La Cage Aux Folles” opened in August 1983 – 13 months after the term “AIDS” was first heard publicly – it had the power to shock. Less sophisticated audiences murmured at a male-on-male kiss in a Broadway musical; they buzzed when the Cagelle chorus revealed at the final curtain which were women and which were men in drag.
Thirty-two years later, it’s a mainstream piece. Albin’s “I Am What I Am” is not so much a defiant proclamation of his nature to a homophobic world as an anthem for any underdog demanding respect. There’s no gender confusion: All the Cagelles are men in drag, not mysterious creatures whose sex remains in doubt until the last moment.
So “Cage” was a natural for Theatre Charlotte, which opens its season with broadly accessible musicals. (The last three in this slot were “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Gypsy” and “Footloose.”)
The company is doing the scaled-down version from the revival of the last decade, and doing it with gusto – although it starts to feel too long after the intermission, when director Dennis Delamar and his actors slacken the pace.
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The humiliation of a despicable reformist politician, always the weakest part of Harvey Fierstein’s book, still seems clunky. The physical comedy, mostly for drag star Albin (Steve Bryan) and his flighty maid (Matt Kenyon), earns laughs but extends the show.
Yet Delamar draws out the emotional side well. For the first time since seeing “La Cage” in 1983 and in less impressive incarnations, I felt that low-key club owner Georges (Jon Jones) and high-strung Albin had entered late middle age deeply in love. These stout, graying chaps seemed like a married couple who could endure any storms that rocked them, and the actors were evenly matched – not always the case in “La Cage,” where Albin often dominates.
If the plot sounds familiar, you may be like the patron I heard saying, “They made this into ‘The Birdcage.’” He referred to the tame 1996 film comedy that was adapted – as was this Jerry Herman musical – from the 1978 French film “La Cage Aux Folles.” (That, in turn, came from a 1973 French play by Jean Poiret.)
Georges has a son from a brief heterosexual fling. That son (Hank Santos, who almost turned this non-entity of a character into a real person) wants to marry the daughter of that right-wing politician. He fears her family will reject him if they know he was raised by two men, so he asks Albin to step out of his life for a while.
“La Cage” alternates between this moral dilemma and backstage drama involving Albin and the six Cagelles, who have been drilled precisely by choreographer Emily Hunter and add pizzazz to the show. The conclusion of the story never did make much sense, but everyone gets to participate in the broadly happy ending – as they’re expected to do in any feelgood, big-hearted musical.
‘La Cage Aux Folles’
WHEN: Through Sept. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22.
WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Rd.
RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-376-3777; theatrecharlotte.org.