La Cage Aux Folles is a big, splashy musical with lots of big, splashy numbers. But unlike most such musicals, it's also got heart, humor and a good story to tell. Beyond all that, in a time of intense mean-spiritedness and prejudice in the political arena, this show carries a message of tolerance and joy — and does so without preaching and while showing audiences a hell of a good time.
Georges is a middle-aged homosexual who runs a transvestite club in St. Tropez. He lives in cozy, bourgeois domesticity with Albin, the club's temperamental star. Neurotic, vain and comically insecure, Albin needs constant coddling, which Georges is happy to provide. The two men have raised a son, Jean-Michel, the result of a long-ago one-night stand by Georges; now a handsome young man of 24, Jean-Michel is preparing to introduce his beloved to his parents. But not only is this beloved a woman, she is the daughter of Edouardo Dindon, an extreme right-wing politician with designs on the presidency. Jean-Michel begs Georges and Albin not to reveal their homosexuality when the Dindons come for dinner; in fact, he wants his biological mother at the table and the flamboyant Albin safely out of sight. This setup leads to a madly farcical flurry of scenes, as Georges attempts to teach Albin masculine traits so that he can pass as an affectionate uncle; the couple's hot-pink apartment with its lewd appurtenances undergoes a transformation; and finally, after much yelling, partying and cross-dressing — all punctuated with songs — a happy ending ensues.
La Cage Aux Folles won a slew of awards when it opened on Broadway in 1983, and the 2004 revival won several more. The songs, by Jerry Herman, are infectiously hummable: fast, sexy nightclub numbers, pretty love ballads and a big celebration piece called "The Best of Times" that simply sweeps you away. Albin also has one of those climactic, I'm-baring-my-soul songs worthy of Judy Garland or Gypsy's Mama Rose called "I Am What I Am." And, yes, it is a complete show-stopper. But for all his narcissism, Albin is presented as a devoted mother and pure-hearted victim of an uncomprehending society in Harvey Fierstein's sometimes sentimental script; it might have been more interesting — and certainly funnier — to see a struggle between selflessness and vanity raging in his padded bosom.
The cast is very strong. As Georges, Michael E. Gold is all suavity and energy, a lithe, good-natured figure who keeps the entire enterprise cooking. Stephen Day has a really wonderful voice, and to some extent he succeeds in making us feel for Albin. Jean-Michel is written as a straightforward male ingenue without any particular depth or eccentricity, but Nick Spangler brings good looks, a lithe dancing style and a lovely tenor to the role. The part of Jacob — the intensely effeminate butler or, as he prefers, maid — is a guaranteed laugh-getter, and Milton Craig Nealy plays it to the hilt, with infectious humor and enjoyment. Rachel Turner is a bit too squinchy-eyed cute dancing into the room as Jean-Michel's beloved, Ann, but she's sweetly appealing when she finally speaks. Sharon Kay White is a scene stealer as the restaurant owner, Jacqueline, who eventually saves the day. Mark Rubald portrays the prudish Dindon with his usual integrity and guts, and Heather Fortin Rubald is unexpectedly — but quite appropriately — charming as Mrs. Dindon.
Director Rod A. Lansberry's lavish production takes this very satisfying musical as far as it'll go. Brian Mallgrave's set is witty and ingenious, and Nicole M. Harrison's costumes are as fabulous as they ought to be. The choreography, by Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, isn't that risqué, but it's sharp and the lively, committed members of the chorus give it their all. There are both men and women in this chorus, and trying to figure out who's what adds a frisson of interest to the proceedings.
If I lived in London, Manhattan or San Francisco, I might find this show's celebration of gayness and difference, its insistence that decency, commitment and warmth can exist in a gay relationship, old hat or unnecessary, as at least one New York critic did. But I live in the middle of an America that's trying to outlaw such relationships, and the bright, happy world that Georges and Albin have created for themselves — no matter how idealized and unrealistic it may be — cheers my heart.