“The Best of Times”

The original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles was a major success, winning six Tony awards and having a run of 1761 performances at the Palace Theatre. The original London production, a recreation of the NY staging, wasn’t nearly as successful, running  a mere 301 performances at the London Palladium. George Hearn was able to recreate his Tony-winning performance as Albin, as part of the Equity exchange (as a result, New York was treated to Robert Lindsay’s eventual Tony-winning star turn in Me and My Girl). The show would find eventual success in London thanks to the Menier Chocolate Factory revival that transferred to the West End in 2008.

Here is the original London company performing “The Best of Times” (slightly abridged) led by Hearn, with co-star Dennis Quilley as Georges on “A Christmas Night of a 100 Stars.” Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mother) is Jacqueline (take note of the way she claps during the song’s final section).


“La Cage Aux Folles”

I’ve long been a fan of Jerry Herman’s life-affirming, full-out Broadway style that mixes sentiment, warmth and hummable melody and incisive lyrics. When I first heard that there was going to be an import of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s acclaimed production of La Cage Aux Folles, my first reaction was “It’s the new Gypsy!” The turnaround for musical revivals on Broadway is getting shorter and shorter.

Was it too soon for a revival of La Cage? I don’t think so and as it turned out, neither did the majority of the critics. The show has its detractors, but I enjoy Jerry Herman’s lively score and am apparently one of the few people who had enjoyed the 2004 revival at the Marriot Marquis (Remember the Daniel Davis debacle? I attended the first performance after he was fired). Its reception at the Menier led to an extended run on the West End. The Broadway transfer of this production ultimately took place because of the buzz surrounding Douglas Hodge’s Olivier-winning performance as Albin/Zaza.

With news that the stars would be departing, I finally bought my ticket for their last performance; I had been holding off on the production but figured it was about time. The atmosphere at the Longacre Theatre is quite playful, with a drag queen greeting (and roasting) patrons on their way into the theatre. This continues with a pre-show warmup session, surveying birthdays, anniversaries and whatnot. (There was even a particularly amusing reference to Kelsey Grammer’s marital woes). It’s one of the most ingenious strokes of the entire production because it instantly brings the audience into the world of the play.

I enjoyed the show, but with considerable reservations. While the relationships were well-explored, the staging and choreography seemed thrown together. Director Terry Johnson made some smart choices such as establishing the play as a 70s period piece and anchoring the main relationship between George and Albin with genuine emotion. However, La Cage Aux Folles, warts and all, has always been a farce from its original French incarnation onward. We gain more heart (commendable) but at the loss of many laughs. I admired the production, but will admit I had more fun as an audience member at the Marriot Marquis.

The musical staging is especially pedestrian. I understand that this stripped-down revival pushed the nightclub into seedier territory and was trying to emulate a run-down, second-rate atmosphere, but choreographer Lynne Page has neither the wit nor talent for such a task. There has got to be a way of presenting this conceit without it looking cheap and lazy. Ms. Page was also responsible for the uninspired choreography in the recently closed revival of A Little Night Music across the street, in which she all but ruined the sumptuous “Night Waltz.” The Menier Chocolate Factory continues to grow in esteem and I hope that in the future they will consider hiring stronger choreographers.

Grammer is every inch a star. His presence, panache and charm were complemented by his profound sincerity. His singing left something to be desired, but he sang “Song on the Sand” and “Look Over There” with such feeling it hardly mattered. Hodge’s Albin was a fascinating creation, to be sure, but I confess it took me a while to warm up to him. He was at his most endearing in the second when his performance was less about the camp and more about the individual behind Zaza. They had outstanding chemistry together, made especially ebullient by the occasion of their final show (when the audience rose in ovation for Hodge’s entrance, Grammer smiled warmly at his colleague and applauded him as well, prompting a visibly moved Hodge to take his entrance one more time). Hodge won the Tony for his performance, but I daresay Grammer was even more deserving of the honor.

A.J. Shively, who became overwhelmed with emotion during his big number, was outstanding as Jean-Michel, making him seem more misguided than cruel (as he seemed in the 2004 revival). It’s a joy having the sublime Christine Andreas back on Broadway as the bawdy Jacqueline. The seemingly ageless Andreas was a vision in purple and her distinct soprano is as glorious as ever. Fred Applegate and Elena Shaddow, whom I adored in last year’s revival of Fanny, were absolutely superb in their limited roles. Robin de Jesus is playing the “maid” Jacob, with a performance that seemed strangely incongruous to the rest of the ensemble.

Unlike Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, I wasn’t as appalled by Jason Carr’s reduced orchestrations this time. Then again, this is the first Menier transfer to play Broadway in a size-appropriate venue. Thankfully the PS Classics cast album captures the best of the revival and is the best aural experience for this particular production (and overlooked by the Grammy committee? I think so).

Following the performance came an instant standing ovation as flowers were distributed to the four departing cast members (Aside from Hodge and Grammer, de Jesus and Applegate are also moving onto other projects). Hodge spoke first about how much he was going to be on a plane to England that very night. He discussed his gratitude for the hospitality he had experienced in New York, adding that he hoped to return as soon as possible. He also requested that everyone involved in the backstage crew come out onstage to take part in the bow expressing his thanks to each and every member of the company. His final comment was about forging a new and close friendship with Grammer, something he said was as important as any award he had won for the role. He then turned it over to Grammer, who quipped about the year he had (with his very public divorce proceedings) and then earnestly offered his praise and thanks to the company before offering his gratitude to his family and fiancee in the house.

The revival continues at the Longacre with brand new stars Jeffrey Tambor and Harvey Fierstein. As a diehard Arrested Development fan, I’m thrilled that Mr. Tambor is back on Broadway. I am most curious to see Fierstein as Albin as I think he will bring more authenticity to Albin than anyone else who has played him. His vocal limitations notwithstanding, I think he’s going to be a glove-fit for this production.

It’s the New Gypsy!

A mere five years following the unsuccessful revival of La Cage Aux Folles, it’s been announced by Norman Conquests producer Sonia Friedman that the current hit West End revival will transfer to Broadway in March 2010. The current production originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory and is currently in the midst of a hit West End engagement with Roger Allam and Philip Quast. TV and stage star John Barrowman is to step into the role of Albin this fall.

The recent revival played the Marriott Marquis for seven months, winning the Best Musical Revival Tony as producers simultaneously posted the closing notice. The production is probably best remembered for its highly publicized firing of star Daniel Davis as Georges halfway through the run. Robert Goulet, in his final Broadway appearance, was brought into the production, but his presence did very little to improve the show’s box office intake. Gary Beach was Albin, but seemed to be recreating his Roger De Bris rather than exploring that fascinating duality of the insecure, sensitive Albin with his assertive drag alter-ego Zaza.

Why is it coming back? Apparently this revival has a unique approach to the material that is unlike any other La Cage we’ve seen before. Friedman feels that there is enough appeal in this production to warrant a Broadway run. She is currently seeking a large playhouse or small musical house for the production and hopes to work out an arrangement with Actor’s Equity for Douglas Hodge, the original Olivier-winning Albin of the production to transfer. No other casting or details are available, but Friedman did meet with the show’s composer Jerry Herman the day of the Tonys to discuss details.

I’ll gladly see the show if it transfers, as it’s always been a crowdpleaser. However, this second revival in half a decade begs me to ask the Nederlander organization, where are the promised revivals of Hello, Dolly! and Mame that were to follow the last La Cage?

In the meanwhile: here’s the Tony-winning original George Hearn delivering “A Little More Mascara.” (The video quality is poor, his performance is outstanding).