One notices the differences from the opening minutes of the new Broadway revival of “La Cage Aux Folles.”
The setting is seedier, more realistically evocative of the sort of decadent seaside nightclub it depicts. The Cagelles are unpolished and decidedly tough looking; glaring during their routines, they seem as likely to accost audience members as entertain them. The orchestra is smaller, and at the intimate Longacre Theatre, one is much closer to the action.
The results, thankfully, are simply wonderful. Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 musical, which already has received two lavish Broadway productions, is even more touching and entertaining in this chamber-style version, imported from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (currently white-hot thanks to this and its “A Little Night Music,” which also transferred).
The production has wisely retained the services of Douglas Hodge, the British classical actor who is little known on these shores but who delivers a tour de force (and Olivier Award-winning) performance as Albin, the drag-queen star of the titular nightclub. Providing boxoffice insurance, Kelsey Grammer plays Georges, delivering an assured and charming leading turn.
Based on a French play and its subsequent movie adaptation, the musical revolves around the comic ramifications that occur when Georges’ son, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively), the product of a drunken one-night stand, informs his male parents that his new love, Anne (Elena Shaddow), is the daughter of a deeply moralistic right-wing politician. In preparation for a visit from his future in-laws, he begs them to clean up their act for one night, which of course means that Albin should make himself scarce.
Albin’s umbrage at Jean-Michel’s betrayal is manifested in the show’s iconic song “I Am What I Am,” which has become an unofficial gay anthem. But it only is one of numerous classics in Herman’s brilliant score, which also includes such well-known numbers as “Song on the Sand,” “The Best of Times” and the title song.
Director Terry Johnson’s scaled-down production truly gets to the heart of the show, which is the tender romance between Albin and Georges. It is deeply felt, with Grammer and Hodge wonderfully moving as the longtime couple whose bickering barely disguises their deep love for each other.
Thankfully, the musical’s farcical elements are equally well realized, with particularly strong contributions from Lynne Page’s amusing choreography, Matthew Wright’s tackily over-the-top costumes and hilarious supporting performers like Robin De Jesus as the couple’s sassy maid, Jacob.
Hodge is outstanding as Albin, superbly balancing the character’s outrageous campiness with a vulnerability that makes Albin more touching than he ever has been. He’s equally assured in the musical numbers, providing amusing caricatures of Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich along the way.
Grammer is equally fine. The actor most recently appeared on Broadway in an ill-fated stab at “Macbeth,” which was simply too jarring for audiences that had grown used to his comic “Frasier” persona. But, as he proved in a concert version of “My Fair Lady” here a few years back, he’s a natural musical leading man. Displaying a fine baritone voice and, less surprisingly, superb comic timing, his Georges commands the proceedings. (Whether he’ll be as successful in six months, when he supposedly assumes the role of Albin, is more of a question).
Broadway veterans Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox get the requisite laughs in their dual roles as cafe proprietors and the prospective in-laws, and Christine Andreas, as the restaurant owner Jacqueline, and Shively and Shaddow, as the young lovers, have little to do but do it well.
As for the Cagelles, well, you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley, especially Nicholas Cunningham’s fierce German dominatrix, Hanna.
Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Production: Menier Chocolate Factory
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Douglas Hodge, Fred Applegate, Veanne Cox, Chris Hoch, Helena Shaddow, A. J. Shively, Christine Andreas, Robin De Jesus
Music-lyrics: Jerry Herman
Book: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Terry Johnson
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Scenic designer: Tim Shortall
Costume designer: Matthew Wright
Lighting designer: Nick Richings
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Presented by Sonia Friedman Productions, David Babani, Barry and Fran Weissler and Edwin W. Schloss, Bob Bartner/Norman Tulchin, Broadway Across America, Matthew Mitchell, Raise the Roof 4, Richard Winkler/Bensinger Taylor, Laudenslager Bergere, Arlene Scanlan/John O’Boyle, Independent Presenters Network, Olympus Theatricals, Allen Spivak, Jerry Frankel/Bat-Barry Productions and Nederlander Presentations, Inc./Harvey Weinstein