La Cage aux Folles

So here I am in New York. I got here Tuesday night and will leave Sunday morning. In addition to seeing some very cool friends (yes, Amy, that includes you), I'm seeing some very cool musical theatre.

I started Wednesday afternoon at the New York Public Library's Theatre on Film and Tape Collection at Lincoln Center. My home away from home. I watched the 2005 revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It's a terrific production and it's what convinced me a year ago that New Line had to produce the show -- it's one of the rowdiest, funniest, sexiest shows I've ever seen. Even though we'll come at it somewhat differently, it helps me so much to see shows on their feet rather than on the page, so it was great to see it again. My head is positively swimming with ideas now, but you'll have to wait till March to see what they are...

Wednesday night I saw the latest revival of La Cage aux Folles. I had heard great things about it and I had seen the original Broadway production when I was in college, so I was anxious to see this. I had been told that it was way darker (which we all know I love) and that in this version, the club in the show was much seedier.

But that's not entirely true. What was so different may just be a product of changing expectations from the musical theatre audience. The biggest difference was the acting. So real, so honest, so truthful. They didn't play it as musical comedy; they approached the characters, relationships, etc. the way they would in a serious play. So though it's a funny story, there was no layer of irony distancing us from the emotions of these characters and events.

Kelsey Grammer (yes, that's right, Fraiser) played Georges, and he absolutely disappeared into the role. There was no hint left of Grammer's (or Fraiser's) ego, none of his regular bag of comedic tricks. This was a fully drawn, subtle, honest character, and it was a real delight to see it.

Also, this time around the drag queens -- Les Cagelles -- looked like drag queens! It was very obvious they were all men; in fact, they were all hot, muscular men (and for this gay man, the killer abs on display were an unexpected treat), and the show never tried to fool us into thinking they were women. Unlike the original, there were no real women among them. When we were seeing the club show, it was rowdy, nasty, hilarious, and overflowing with anarchy. Precision was not the main agenda; fun was. It felt so much like the real drag shows I've seen...

But the real highlight of the show was Douglas Hodge as Albin. His performance was nothing short of pure genius. Funny, honest, painful, subtle, joyful, and most of all, incredibly real. The kind of guy you'd love to have for a friend. Again, this was no musical comedy performance; this is an actor at the height of his power. Sometimes a naughty little boy, sometimes a weary middle-aged man, sometimes just a charismatic, lifelong entertainer who knows how to connect with an audience. His songs, "A Little More Mascara" and "I Am What I Am," both start out very quiet, very small, and that little detail made it so real, so emotional. He wasn't entertaining us with these songs; they were soliloquies from a man who isn't as sure or as strong as Albin usually is.

It's one of those productions that makes me see the material from an entirely different angle, much like the 1990s revivals of Carousel and The King and I. What I always thought of as a very sweet, fun musical comedy is now something much, much more. And what a joy it is to witness real artists of the theatre find that greater depth and subtlety in a show that isn't known for those things. It must've been there all along, hiding, waiting for actors and a director like this.

When Albin sings, in his brilliant "I Am What I Am," the lyric "Life's not worth a damn, till you can say, Hey world, I am what I am," I couldn't help but think of Don't Ask Don't Tell, gay marriage, and the other civil rights gay Americans still don't enjoy. Who knew that more than 25 years later, this show would remain this timely? It casts a fascinating shadow over the story.

Perhaps the nicest thing about this revival is that in the original, Georges and Albin never kissed. We had no hint that they had a physical relationship. In this production, the final image the audience is left with is a real, loving kiss between the two. Not a peck, the kind of kiss that a couple of 20 years would share. It was so clear these two men love each other, which is so central to the story but so absent from the more skittish original...

By the end of the cheering standing ovation, I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak. I was supposed to meet a friend after the show, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to talk without bursting into tears. It was that powerful for me.

Not a show I'll soon forget.

I know what you're thinking -- now that I've seen this production, will New Line do La Cage? Well, first, there were some noticeable rewrites of the script and score, and I don't know if they'll be licensing this new version or not. Second, though it's a smaller version of the show, it's still a cast of 19, which is a bit big for us. But I'll say this -- it's not out of the realm of possibility...

Long Live the Musical!