At last night's opening of La Cage Aux Folles, the final touring production in the current Fairwinds Broadway Across America season, I saw something unusual -- a significant number of prime empty seats at the Bob Carr. Was Orlando's theater community still nursing their post-Fringe hangovers, burnt out on GLBT-themed shows? Or is the nearly 30-year-old show still "too gay" for our conservative audience? Either opinion would be erroneous, because this Tony-winning revival is both as flamingly frothy as any first-rate Fringe farce, and as full of old-fashioned family values as anything the Gershwins ground out.
In case you haven't caught the non-musical film version, The Birdcage, on one of its infinite cable airings, the storyline is simple: Georges (George Hamilton) runs Paris' infamous La Cage Aux Follies drag club, with his longtime love Albin (Christopher Sieber) as the star attraction. Georges' son Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney), whom Albin helped raise, returns to announce that he is marrying Anne (Allison Blair McDowell), daughter of a persecutorial right-wing politician (Bernard Burak Sheredy), and asks his "mom" to closet himself for the sake of simulating a normal family. After attempting to blend in, Albin eventually outs himself, but wins over the intolerant in-laws with a combination of charm and blackmail. (If this plot seems particularly familiar, the recent wretched Addams Family musical purloined it wholesale.)
Headlining his first Broadway tour, George Hamilton neither embarrasses nor overwhelms, but glides along on his legendary Hollywood charm. He looks exactly how you'd expect, with radiant perma-tan and a mile-wide grin, and while Hamilton isn't a strong enough singer or dancer to keep up with the pros around him, he genuinely seems to be having fun trying. The real star of the show is Sieber, who looks like the lovechild of Nathan Lane and Isaac Mizrahi, is deliciously diva-ish delivering Harvey Firestein's dishy dialogue, and builds Jerry Herman's anthemic "I Am What I Am" from a heartbreaking whisper to a hair-raising roar. Sieber sells his solo scenes, which are among the show's only emotionally complex moments, but has to carry the weight in interactions with Hamilton, whose line readings often lack punch. The balance of the cast is consistently strong, including the Cagelles chorus line, with special attention due Jeigh Madjus' outrageous interpretation of Albin's butler/maid Jacob. An unpleasant exception is Lowney, who is more effeminate as the show's supposed straight man than any transvestite.
Director Terry Johnson keeps the energy high and the emotions light, inviting viewers inside the La Cage club, with designer Tim Shortall's set framing the action with vintage footlights and a faux proscenium. Audience interaction begins with a drag queen emcee pre-curtain, and continues as beach balls and bawdy bowls are tossed into the crowd during musical numbers. Unfortunately, a maddeningly muffled microphone mix made singing and speech alike sound distant and echoey.
Beneath the broad humor, there's a serious sentiment under La Cage's surface that sadly isn't outdated yet. In a day when the President promotes same-sex marriage, maybe this play's plot will soon be passé. For now, the humor and heart still feel as relevant as the day the show was written.