Farewell to “La Cage”….. For Now

I had never seen the musical show based on the film "La Cage aux Folles."  I remembered the original French film fondly from when it was first shown in the U.S., and I remembered, a bit less fondly, the American knock-off film, the title of which, "The Birdcage," was a literal translation of the French title… the story shifted from a French coastal city to Miami.  Somehow I had never stirred my self to see the Broadway musical, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and book by Harvey Fierstein, when it was new.  At the time, it struck me from press reports as a grandiose, campy drag show that would be of little interest to me, so I steered clear.

A year ago a Broadway revival was launched, and I was still uninterested.  But then a short time ago a cast change was announced: Harvey Fierstein, author of the book for the musical and a real favorite of mine, was going to take over the lead role of Albin/Zaza, and so now I felt that I had to attend, and my theater-going companion and I arranged for tickets for May 1 – not knowing when we got the tickets that subsequently the producers announced that the Broadway run would end on May 1.  So, for the first time in my life, I was attending a Broadway show on its final day, which of course produces some extra sentiment in the cast and brings out super fans of a show to see it one more time, as was clearly the case this afternoon.

I thought the show was delightful.  Did making it a musical add much of anything to the original non-musical films?  Yes, in this case I thought the songs enhanced the story, and produced an extra bit of pathos and emotion.  Can Harvey Fierstein sing?  Not really.  He has no voice for singing, barely a croak most of the time.  But can Harvey Fierstein put over a song?  Definitely yes.  This is where show music and art song part company.  Although having a good singing voice and being able to sing beautifully and in tune are absolute prerequisites for the concert artist presenting classical art song in recital or singing opera, for the musical theater stage, singing ability may be incidental when a performer, through sheer theatricality and largeness of personality can inhabit a role and project the intended "affect" of a song without being able to sing the actual notes.  So it proved in this case.  Fierstein as Albin was so persuasively inhabiting and projecting the character that he was possibly the most effective "singer" on that stage.

That said, his co-star, Christopher Sieber, was wonderful as well and — a superb bonus — could actually sing his role effectively in purely musical terms, as could all the supporting players.  I was particularly taken by the work of A.J. Shively, as the heterosexual son of this odd gay couple who, over the course of the second act, learns the value of de facto parents and induces tears when at last he embraces Albin.   This is, in the end, a heartwarming story of love.  As Fierstein commented during a short pause in the concluding ovation, this play is all about love, that's the center of the story, and that's why what should seem like a dated period piece comes across as vital and contemporary.

That said, the opportunity to see the current production on Broadway is gone, but it was announced that the production itself will now go on the road and appear in several major cities in the months ahead, so it will remain available for those who want to partake….

The current staging, which originated in the UK at the Menier Chocolate Factory, was excellently directed by Terry Johnson with effective choreography by Lynne Page.  The music was arranged for a reduced ensemble by Jason Carr and directed with scrappy enthusiasm by Todd Ellison.  The technical crew did the best that could be done at the Longacre, a house with a relatively small stage, and a minimalist set was effectively used.  Although I could see this being more effective with a bigger, more expensive production, it was reasonably effective presented on this reduced scale — mainly because the show is mostly about it's two lead characters, who were so brilliantly portrayed here.

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