The feathers may not be as fine as before — when the show took a Tony for Best Musical of 1983 and another one 21 years later for Best Musical Revival of 2004 — but that's by design, coming from London's miniaturizing Menier Chocolate Factory where they like to think thin to get to the previously overburdened heart of the matter. (That thinking gave Broadway some streamlined Sondheims of late: 2008's Sunday in the Park With George and 2009's A Little Night Music.)
Now we have a stripped-down drag club, situated on the seedy side of St. Tropez, with a worn-down-to-its-high-heels chorus line — six, girls, six but all-male (save for the occasional female swing). More focused is the mano-a-mano relationship of the club's owner-host, Georges (Kelsey Grammer), and its headliner, Albin — the entertainer known as Zaza (Douglas Hodge).
Conflict comes in the form of Georges' son by a previous and very experimental one-night-stand with a showgirl. Now grown, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively) is altar-bound with Anne (Elena Shaddow), who comes from gay-baiting, conservative stock (Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox), and a meeting of in-laws is set up, once Jean-Michel has thoroughly de-gayed the premises — including, at one point, Albin. Comic chaos, inevitably, results.
The preaching-to-the-converted plot is the house of cards it always was, but it is still shored up by Jerry Herman's last great score, and the 78-year-old songwriter was there to drink in the enthusiastic appreciation of the first-nighters.
Now frail and ailing, he was helped at the curtain call from the third row to the stage, where he radiated back at the audience, effectively and effortlessly stealing his own show as he joined one last, heart-felt round of "The Best of Times [Is Now]." Although it crowned an exciting night of theatre, the song is not Herman's favorite from the show; the lilting "Look Over There" is. Of that, he has said: "A songwriter only has a few chances in a career to write a perfect lyric. This [was] my best shot."
Other numbers left swimming in the heads of first-nighters as they weaved their way nine blocks uptown to the after-party site on West 57th, Providence (nee Le Bar Bat): the exquisite "Song on the Sand" and "With Anne on My Arm," the emphatic, anthem-like "I Am What I Am" and that rouser of a title tune. At the entrance of the restaurant, mascara pencils and lip gloss were offered to all genders. A broad-beamed bevy of drag queens decorated the evening, gussying things up with more glitz than glamour. One trio of bosom buddies consisted of Bianca Del Rio, a titanically coiffed Lady Bunny and the fairy godmother of the vintage Studio 54, Rollerina. Also, there was one loud, statuesque creature bossing celebrities along the press barricades. In contrast, Charles Busch and Hedwig's John Cameron Mitchell were almost demure.
Other faces in the crowd: Jason Biggs and his wife; designers Mary McFadden and Malan Breton; "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills"; Tituss Burgess; producer Jean Doumanian; publisherJoe Armstrong; a large-with-twins Kathleen Marshall; Jujamcyn prexy Jordan Roth; and, least but not last, someone claiming to be Lily Whiteass.
Running the press gauntlet in sunshades were the freshly Florida-tanned Tommy Tune and the New York Post's Michael Riedel. Emmy Rossum posed for the paparazzi but gave a pass to the interviewers.
A major neighborly migration of glitter arrived from A Little Night Music, directly across the street from the Longacre at the Walter Kerr: Ramona Mallory and Kevin David Thomas, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Katherine Leigh Doherty and Keaton Whittaker. Harvey Weinstein was in attendance (as one of 20 producers presenting this chamber-musical edition of La Cage) — but not Harvey Fierstein, who won a Tony for its musical book, which he adapted from Jean Poiret's play. Fierstein was in Washington, DC headlining the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, but he caught the show before he left and relayed his approval to all hands.
Cast members had some friends at court. Grammer's much-Emmyed bro on "Frasier," David Hyde Pierce, yukked it up from an aisle seat down front. And Robin DeJesus — Tony-nominated for In the Heights, here reduced to arrogant maid service — had his Heights cousin and Tony-winning composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, sitting ringside, hugely enjoying himself, spurring the cast on with a steady stream of laughter. (The first few rows of seats were removed and replaced by nightclub tables to increase the show's intimacy.)
"Lin knows how weird opening-night audiences can be, how they're scared for their loved ones on stage, and he gave so much to us in the show, laughing," DeJesus remarked later. "There was a moment where Doug [Hodge] talks to the audience and he was doing the bit toward Lin. When I looked over at Lin, he winked at me, and I took it in. We have a brotherly affection on stage and off. I do love and adore that man."
Grammer could make the same claim about his stage spouse and playing partner, Hodge. "There's nobody as good as Doug," he trilled. "Doug is extraordinary. I haven't had so much fun with another actor since I worked with David Hyde Pierce. The chemistry was there from the beginning. We landed right on it. It happened right away." Now, he said, there is talk of the two of them switching roles. "It's a possibility that we have discussed. It may, or it may not, happen."
Georges is as far and desperate a cry from Dr. Frasier Crane as it is from Grammer's previous Broadway roles — Cassio in Othello and both Lennox and the title role in Macbeth — but he made the leap because of "the heart of the show. It's about love that's real and consistent and strong and can face almost any challenge."
Hodge's Olivier Award-winning portrayal of Albin is the best argument for importing this show only six years after the last La Cage. It's also the best way to make a Broadway debut. "I've been sorta hoping to come to Broadway for 20 years. I've come close many times. The first Pinters I did — No Man's Land and The Caretaker — were all going to come and, for all different reasons, never did. This is the second musical I've done. I never expected to be here in a musical.
"It's so thrilling. I utterly believe in the piece. I think there's sort of a common ownership by the people who do it. I love its message. I love the comedy. I love the humor of it, and I love the fact that it's so poignant and moving. I just wanted us all to up our game. We have better singers, better dancers and better actors here."
[flipbook] There is much humor and humanity that Hodge manages to mine from the vulnerable Albin, and sometimes the two are connected in one moment, like his favorite bit of comedy business. "I really like that very first moment when he looks in the mirror and he thinks, 'I can't stand to look at me,' and then he accidentally turns the mirror around and gets a magnified look at himself and gives himself a horrific jolt.
"The first lyric he sings is, 'It's nice to be anyone other than me,' so the whole journey of the evening is he can't bear being himself. He'd rather be Dietrich or Judy, anyone other than him. By the end, he's happy to be who he is, and that's a fantastic trip."
His other musical role was Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls at the Donmar, opposite Jane Krakowski's Adelaide. When told Nathan Lane also played Nathan Detroit and Albin (in Mike Nichols's film, "The Birdcage"), Hodge widened his eyes and pondered the possibilities. "What do I do next?" Gomez Addams, perhaps. But then, given the guess-who's-coming-to-dinner plotline pursued by The Addams Family, maybe he already is — in drag.
Right before Hodge went on, he was told that Jerry Herman was in the house. "I've longed for him to see it. I just suddenly saw the whole evening through his eyes, trying to guess what he was thinking and trying to get that out of my mind."
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Christine Andreas, as the pushy proprietress of Chez Jacqueline where the in-laws dinner occurs, is glamorously gowned for the role. "I'm one of the few girls up there, so they have to make me look pretty good," she was quick to quip.
The part has been built up more than it has been in previous editions. "I wish I could take credit for that," she said, "but they wrote a few more things for her to do in London, setting the precedent that Jacqueline is always pushing into Albin, wanting to be out there in the spotlight, so they gave a little piece of 'La Cage aux Folles' to sing."
Cox and Applegate get billing after the two leads but are also underutilized, even when double-cast as two different couples — (1) owners of a cafe frequented by Georges and Albin, and (2) their prospective right-wing in-laws. "The joy I get out of this show is doing the transition from these two women," admitted Cox. "The cafe woman is the most calm I've ever been on stage, and then I do the uptight woman, which is what I usually play. It's not easy being off-stage a lot. I have trouble with it because I have to concentrate more when I'm off-stage. When you're on stage, you just are."
Terry Johnson, who directed the show and tweaked the book, eschewed any mention of his Broadway debut. "I did a production of The Graduate, which much of Broadway hated. The reviews weren't good, but we had a good run."
He and Fierstein had some transatlantic huddles about Anglicizing the musical book. "Harvey and I would have these odd amusing emails about whose joke is funniest, but I would surrender immediately. He was very generous about letting us adapt it for England. When we brought it here, he said, 'Yeah, use whichever one you like,' so we went back to certain places, and other places we stuck with what we had. It's very hard to remember. The book has flexed — but always with Harvey's eye on it. "I've always loved this piece. It's a genuinely unique piece. It's challenging because La Cage has so many disparate elements to it, and, if you bring them all together correctly, you get something special. That's what I enjoy doing — working out how on Earth to bring disparate elements together."
Somehow, La Cage doesn't look so little at the Longacre. "It always depends on the theatre we go into," Johnson noted. "It originated very small. We've always performed it on precisely the same footprint. I think what we've done to the Longacre is make the Longacre feel smaller than it is. There's absolutely nothing added."