‘La Cage Aux Folles’: Glam, Sentimental Musical That Still Dazzles

George Hamilton as Georgesin La Cage aux Folles | Photo by Paul Kolnik

Gay marriage is a hot-button issue among what’s left of the sorry lot of Republicans running for President. Alongside the debates and elections is the touring production of the successful 2010 Broadway revival of “La Cage Aux Folles,” the 1980s mega-hit musical of gay glitter, glam, romance and divas. This musical brings with it an aura that’s part eager-to-please and part pixelated nostalgia that has settled in at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

This “La Cage,” maybe any “La Cage,” does not prove the show biz and social buzz of everything old is new again. This “La Cage” is what it is, or as its true star and diva, Zaza, famously sings, “I am What I Am.” The musical is plenty dazzling, even if the production often seems like a visitor from the past.

“La Cage” has had so many incarnations and identities that it’s a wonder Leonardo DiCaprio hasn’t been in one of them. It started out as a French comedy and became very successful in the United States. This show features a pair of gay men, one being Georges, a stylish, elegant owner of “La Cage a Folles,” a popular nightclub where men dress spectacularly as women and put on a nightly vaudeville/musical show. His partner, Albin, is insecure, emotional and often hysterical, who transforms himself nightly into Zaza, the blinding star of “La Cage.” Together, they’ve managed to raise a son whom Georges acquired as a result of a youthful fling with a Parisian showgirl long ago. Now, sunny boy is in love with the daughter of a virulently homophobic politician who’s coming to visit with his wife. Voila-le situation.

Out of this material, the writer-actor-playwright, Harvey Fierstein, and big-time Broadway composer, Jerry Herman, brought forth a hugely successful musical which starred the growly-voiced Fierstein as Albin and, oddly, Gene Barry of television’s “Bat Masterson” as Georges. The show ran as forever as you can on Broadway and then reappeared in a not quite successful revival in the early 2000s. A second revival, which originated in the West End in London, was again a big hit, as was its Broadway version which would feature Kelsey Grammer in his Broadway musical debut as Georges in 2010. The production, now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, has George Hamilton starring as Georges and Christopher Sieber as Albin.

“La Cage” was the crowning glory of Herman’s career, which was preceded by “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” both spectacular musicals and vehicles for diva-type actresses and anthem songs. Both seemed to be part of a journey for which “La Cage” and Albin/Zaza seemed to be the final destination.

A few years back, Mike Nichols directed an American non-musical film version called, “The Bird Cage,” which starred Robin Williams (playing Georges) and Nathan Lane as his partner, as well as Gene Hackman in a remarkably funny turn as a blustering right-wing senator.

But now we have “La Cage” right in our own backyard. For mysterious reasons, although it often operates in a kind of vacuum where no time has passed at all, it’s almost irresistible for its sheer entertaining sincerity and pink-and-white-feather, scene-stealing and changing show. In spite of its not-so-middle-of-the-road setting, it has an old-style Broadway razzle-dazzle and — it should be said — sentiment. It’s all about love, romance, enduring affection, great big hearts and, what do you know, family values. In “La Cage”, nobody argues about gay marriage, but the idea of family is sentimentally self-evident, especially in the song, “Look Over There,” which extolls Albin’s constancy and maternal qualities. With great, slapdash humor, the show also manages to get across the point that the home of Albin and Georges — colorful and eccentric though it may be — is 1,000 mega-watts more normal and loving than that of the politician, who treats his wife like a beast of burden not allowed to speak.

It is 2012 after all, and this show still bowls you over as in the past with eye-candy costume, terrific dancing on the part of the gentlemen and lads who perform as “Les Cagelles” (Angelique, Bitelle, Chantal, Hanna of the Whips, Mercedes and Phaedra), and also includes a house warm-up act, a kind of sit-down comedian in drag.

The part of Georges — a stylish, but low-key, pragmatic sort — has often been played in the past by a Hollywood leading-man type, somewhat asexual except for the red smoking jacket. It has included the likes of Barry, Van Johnson and Hollywood Squares host, Peter Marshall. Hamilton, while a little slow afoot at age 72, still had that old Hollywood, wavy hair magnetism, but he had something even better. At first blush, Georges and Albin have always appeared as an odd couple, a relationship that runs like a roller coaster going down most of the time. But Hamilton lets you see by singing “The Best of Times” and looking at Albin with hapless, hopeful, can’t-help-myself love just how deep the feelings run between these two men.

You might cringe a little here and there throughout the production since it remains squarely rooted in the 1980s: the politicians are hurling words like “homosexual,” as if they were saying “serial killer” and the events taking place at “La Cage” are seen as scandalous and shocking. Time has done its work, as it always does, but it’s taken none of the fizz off this enduring and legendary musical.

Just don’t expect to see Rick Santorum sitting next to you.

“La Cage Aux Folles” runs through Feb. 12 at the Eisenhower Theater.

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