‘La Cage aux Folles’ (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Playhouse via The Broadway Blog.)
By Jim Gladstone
La Cage Aux Folles has been a strangely tenacious pop cultural presence over the past 40 years. Its plot and characters were introduced in a 1973 French play, adapted for film versions in both French and English (The Birdcage) and transformed into a musical (book by Harvey Fierstein; music and lyrics by Jerry Herman) that debuted on Broadway in 1983 where it has since been revived twice: The show won a Tony award for Best Musical and two for Best Revival of a Musical (both in 2004 and 2010).
A new production at San Francisco Playhouse, which opened Wednesday night, is at least the third local mounting of La Cage in the past year. It’s a smartly considered, relatively mellow version that puts more emphasis on charm than farce, tamping down the frenzied, door-slamming, heels-akimbo antics that can—and often do—turn La Cage into a sort of noisy Keystone Cops with lip gloss and weaves.
Among this version’s highlights are costume designer Abra Berman’s seemingly endless parade of kaleidoscopic couture; director Bill English’s careful refusal to let the show tip into camp; and John Treacy Egan’s warm, buoyant yet sweetly restrained lead performance as the drag performer, Albin, asked to make himself scarce when his partner’s son invites his fiancée and future in-laws to pay a visit.
Part of English’s insight here is that, while the more stereotypically masculine central partner, Georges (Ryan Drummond), offers one counterpoint to Albin, another equilibrium must be struck between Albin and his faithful servant Jacob—played here with high-precision, brow-arching flamboyance by Brian Yates Sharber in French maid attire.
A major challenge in pulling off La Cage is the need to avoid overdoing the shrieky diva potential presented by the dual presence of Albin and Jacob. Egan and Sharber achieve a delicate balance of these two roles; there’s a healthy slice of ham in each, but distinctly sharper mustard on Jacob. Egan sensitively delivers of the signature Act One closer, “I Am What I Am” as more of a sung soliloquy than a Gloria Gaynoresque barnburner.
It may seem unsurprising that a musical garnished with cross-dressing male showgirls and seasoned with S&M gags has become a stalwart choice for theater companies here in the prideful, open-minded Bay Area; but in 2017, sequined parsley aside, the meat of La Cage feels problematically past its prime.
In 1983, La Cage drew attention—and was embraced by the LGBT community—for being the first Broadway musical ever to center on a gay couple and to feature a gay kiss. But even then, as Frank Rich noted in his New York Times review, it was “the most old-fashioned major musical Broadway has seen since Annie.”
The most appealing touchstone of that old-fashionedness is the solid, hummable score by Herman (Hello Dolly!, Mame). The conventional structures and catchphrase choruses of songs like “With Anne on My Arm” and “The Best of Times,” feel much more akin to mid-century Broadway than to the evolving, adventurous sounds of the 80s and beyond (Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park with George was the main competitor to La Cage in the 1984 Tony race).
A linear book, broad physical comedy, and punny jokes also helped La Cage make traditional Broadway audiences comfortable with non-traditional characters.
But today’s audience members cannot be expected to know the history of a show. It would be wise to amend the program note that reads “SETTING: St. Tropez, France. Summer” with a boldfaced “1973.” In not pointedly presenting La Cage as a period piece, this production sometimes feels as unintentionally hoary as its showgirls are intentionally whorey. The dialogue offers little in the way of historical reference, and this is compounded by a few of-the-moment jokes unwisely worked into the script for this production.
While La Cage still wins social consciousness points for its assertion that gay couples deserve the same respect and acknowledgement as straight couples, it’s painfully archaic in its stereotypical presentation of the gender roles within those couples—Albin is the slightly hysterical wife and “mother”; George, who once drunkenly impregnated a showgirl, is (therefore?) the more manly husband.
Only a pure fantasy musical along the lines of CATS can safely be produced in a similar manner “Now and Forever.” La Cage is trickier. Without being clearly framed in a specific historical period, it comes off as not only old-fashioned but somewhat awkwardly out of touch.
La Cage Aux Folles
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street
Through September 16
Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at Passport, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.