With their musical La Cage Aux Folles, creators Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book) created a modern-day masterpiece about the perils of betrayal – either of oneself or of somebody else. The team also made an air-tight argument for family values: As man and wife, two parents raise their child to be a polite, productive and self-assured member of society. That both husband and wife happen to be male? More power to them. We all are what we are, and the closet is for bedazzled evening gowns and Lucite heels, not people.
The show is glorious, from the delicate romance of Song on the Sand to the boisterous drinking ditty Best of Times to the endorphin-releasing anthemic powerhouse I Am What I Am. In all, La Cage is a joyful paean to embracing life from whatever angle you choose to live it on, be it the spangled stance of elaborate drag or the straight-laced path of tradition (so long as said tradition doesn't claim the moral high ground and trample on the rights of others.)
Or so it should be. The La Cage, running through Jan. 1 at the Bank of America Theatre, isn’t merely joyless and powerless, it is downright arduous. Who would have thought that tanorexic leading man George Hamilton would have the strength to almost single-handedly render such a fantstic show into such a maddeningly dreary affair? He’s so wooden he could start a forest fire did he not have all the personality of a damp log. You’d think he’d be a natural for the show’s inherent camp – at this point in his career, Hamilton is essentially a parody of his own self. Instead, he sucks all the energy out of the room and makes La Cage drag in the worst possible way. As for his attempts at singing, they are disastrous. Hamilton would be better off - far better off – lip synching. I can forgive many things in life. Butchering Song On the Sand is not one of them.
Hamilton’s tone-deaf Night-of-the-Living-Dead performance isn’t the only problem here. Director Terry Johnson makes a crucial, fundamental mistake in playing up the show’s slapstick to such ridiculously heightened levels that La Cage - a show that is at heart all about dignity and respect – turns into a gay minstrel show. As the star of the titular St. Tropez nightclub, ZaZa (Albin when he’s not in his drag persona) should be a drag queen of epic charm, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Here, she’s a buffoon, despite the strong vocal power of actor Christopher Sieber.
Granted, La Cage is rife with over-the-top moments and humor as subtle as a bugle-bead G-string. But it is not a gay version of the Three Stooges. But in the briad-as-a-barn-door antics of nightclub owner Georges (Hamilton), Albin and the maid Jacob (Jeigh Madjus) Stooge-like stupidity is what we get. Instead of an exuberant triumph of tolerance and a celebration of the fine art of drag, Johnson presents a series of cartoonish vignettes,
The problem of overplayed, overdone exaggeration creates a secondary problem in that it leaches La Cage of crucial conflict. When the ultra-conservative M. Dindon (Bruce Winant) comes to dinner, there’s never any sense of threat simply because Dindon isn't an authoritative and menacing character, he's a dingdong caricature that's all mugging and schtick, never once creating a situation where the audience feels there’s any real danger to the lifestyle and lovestyle of Georges and Albin.
Speaking of which: The ensemble of La Cage is responsible for some of the most flamboyant, extravagant and all-around exhausting dance numbers in all the kingdom of contemporary musicals. Here, they disappoint. Director Johnson focuses more on making these stage queens objects of bitchy, ridiculousness than gifted breathtaking performers. They wouldn’t last the first elimination round on RuPaul’s Drag Race. A word of advice about those considering an outing to La Cage: Don't do it. Just sashay away.
For additional reviews of Broadway in Chicago productions click here (Rock of Ages) here (Mary Poppins), here (Next to Normal) here (Working) here (rain), here (Les Miserables), here (9 to 5), here (Wicked) here (Traces) here (Billy Elliot), here (The Addams Family), here (In the Heights) and here (A Bronx Tale ).