Everyone thought it was too soon to bring La Cage aux Folles back to Broadway. Well, perhaps it is, in terms of the financial prospects of the current Broadway revival, which opened last night at the Longacre Theatre. But in terms of artistic fruition, this production represents a considerable improvement over both the 2004 revival and even the original Broadway production.
The Longacre is actually the perfect theater for this production; it's intimate, ornate, pink, and overall just a wee bit louche in its look and feel. What better berth for the Broadway transfer of the well-received Menier Chocolate Factory production of La Cage. What makes this version so appealing is Terry Johnson's smart and emotionally honest direction. Johnson finds the heart of the piece, crafting more believable relationships among the characters. Plus, Johnson seems to have coached his actors to do more than just perform, but to listen as well. (Listen? In musical comedy? What a novel idea...)
Another aid in the production's artistic success is a significantly revised book by Harvey Fierstein, which seems to feature a fair amount of new material, including the scenes and dialog leading up to Albin's first entrance and number. There's also considerably more material for Jacob the butler (well, maid...), played here by the adorable scene stealer Robin De Jesus. (And no, Ben, I'm not just saying that because he's your best friend.) I do have to say that the device of using Jacob as a sort of stage manager, ushering in set changes and linking certain scenes isn't entirely successful.
The Jerry Herman score remains essentially the same. (Much to the delight of the woman sitting next to me, who made it a point to say to me, "I hope they still have the same songs." Um...) They have gotten rid of the throwaway musical sequence "Aren't We All, N'est-ce Pas?," which isn't on the original cast recording. That's fine, but the music remains as underscoring to a rather pointless scene with the denizens of the local cafe.
The dance numbers, choreographed by Lynne Page, are staged within an inch of their lives, particularly the opening. But while the dance numbers are strong, if a bit ornate, the musical staging in the non-dancing numbers is lame. Like, community-theater lame. The reprise of "With You on My Arm" is particularly clunky and joy-deprived. But "The Best of Times" features actual meaningful stage business, rather than just having the cast stare out at the audience and sway from side to side. (In the original Broadway production, even the set rocked back and forth. Even then, 27 years ago and in my musical theater infancy, I knew that such a touch was twee beyond belief.)
Again, the major assets in this production are the relationships among the characters, particularly Georges and Albin, played here by Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge, respectively. Grammer more than earns his place as a musical theater performer, and brings a lovely soft quality to his interactions with Hodge. This was particularly true during "Song on the Sand," although Grammer did have a tendency to flat on extended notes. And "Look Over There" was especially well staged, laying a solid groundwork for Grammer to plumb the emotional meaning of the song.
Hodge, in a rather splashy Broadway debut, is highly mannered, to say the very least, crafting the sort of over-the-top line readings that many actors simply couldn't pull off. But somehow Hodge comes off as both affected and sympathetic. It's quite a delightful feat to witness. Plus, at times he's flat out, breathtakingly hysterical, particularly during the lead in to "Masculinity." Hodge isn't quite the Broadway belter type: he's more a classically trained actor with a reasonably tuneful, albeit wistful, singing voice. But he brings a quiet dignity to "I Am What I Am," making up for what he lacks in vocal power with heartbreaking intensity.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT for the next paragraph.]
The two performances culminate in a simply yet astonishingly effective tag and the end of act 2. Rather than walking off into the cliche-ridden sunset together, as the characters did in the original production, Albin and Georges here sit quietly together on the stairs of the nightclub and share a simple, touching kiss as the curtain falls. Yes, that's rather obvious, and rather bald-faced in its deliberate manipulation, but, girlfriend, it works. Somehow the fact that this is admitted and confirmed heterosexual Kelsey Grammer kissing another man on-stage -- something that decidedly did *not* occur in the original production -- places a perfect piece of punctuation at the end of a wonderfully heartfelt production.
GRADE: A- (Who knows if it will make money, but the show itself is strong, sweet, and emotionally satisfying.)