George Hamilton opened the musical version of La Cage Aux Folles in Toronto this past week. He looks great in a suit, but doesn't quite fit the part.
The 1983 musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein is based on the 1973 French film, and the story, while filled with comic possibility, has lost none of its topical bite. Georges (played here by the walnut-toned George Hamilton) is the owner of a drag nightclub in St. Tropez, at which his long-time partner, Albin (Christopher Sieber) -aka "Zaza" onstage -performs. Trouble ensues when Georges' son Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney) announces his plans to marry the daughter of a noted anti-homosexual, pro-family politician, Dindon (Bernard Burak Sheredy). The ideas La Cage espouses around identity, family, community and acceptance are as ripe and fresh as they were at the in the stage play that premiered nearly 40 years ago, and it's hardly a surprise the work spawned both a French film and an American remake (with Robin Williams playing Georges) as well as an award-winning 1983 stage musical. The 2004 and 2010 revivals on Broadway both earned Tonys for Best Revival, while the 2008 London production received an Olivier Award in the same category. This is one musical that keeps on giving.
The production currently running in Toronto (at the gorgeous Royal Alexandra Theatre through November 18th), is based on the 2010 revivial, and is celebrating its final stop on a tour that has taken the troupe across North America, with mixed notices. While film star Hamilton is deeply charming and certainly nice to look at (he wears his character's frilled tuxedo shirt and smart-fitting charcoal suit very well), alas, he cannot sing, and his dancing is only passable; whether this is owing to a sustained foot injury that has limited his mobility is debatable, but definitely ages him, whether intentionally or not. Furthermore, Hamilton's painfully stilted delivery of some admittedly mawkish dialogue drags the show down, lessening our sympathy for his character and the challenging identity-based conundrum he faces.
Faring far better is Sieber, whom audiences may remember from TV's Two of A Kind. The talented actor injects a spunky, sparky presence to the proceedings, and is graced with a very strong, rich singing voice, which he uses to full effect at the close of Act I in the fiery "I Am What I Am." As well as a natural ability to connect with his audience, his work is warm, generous, funny, and compassionate, and he frequently rises above Fierstein's hokey dialogue to provide some genuinely touching moments, both in big scenes (his reaction to not being wanted at the dinner is genuinely heartbreaking) and smaller ones (Albin learning to "walk"shows off Sieber's great capacity for physical comedy). What's more, he carries Herman's likeable score with great gusto.
George Hamilton (L) as Georges and Christopher Sieber (R) as Albin in the touring production of La Cage Aux Folles. Although they make a nice onstage couple, Sieber is a far stronger stage presence than his tanned partner, offering strong singing and great acting.
The music itself integrates the sounds of Broadway ballads, classic French bistros, and even vintage Disney cartoon scores. Expertly lead by music director Richard Carsey, it's performed by a group of both touring and local musicians who are perched on a balcony at stage left; while the troupe is small, the effect is orchestral. "With You On My Arm" is a charming, melodic earworm that could've come straight out of The Lady And The Tramp, while "Look Over There" is a loving ballad that highlights both Georges and Albin's passion and the limitations of living in a society where they're not allowed to express that passion. The show's stand-out number, however, is "The Best Of Times", a carpe-diem-like number that recalls Maurice Chevalier and and is easily the crowd-pleasing heart-warmer of the show. Wisely, it ends the production in a sunny clap-and-sing-along.
The choreography, by Lynne Page, is brightly imaginative and full of creative references, with the opening number by Les Cagelles -"We Are What We Are" -a classy, definitive nod to Bob Fosse; the performers, moodily lit and silhouetted, rise out of the rich velvet darkness nearly whispering their lines, with snaking limbs and deliberately slow, long movements. Page also references Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and Cirque du Soleil, showing off the great range and literally strong versatility of the performers. Costuming (by Matthew Wright) is superb -special praise to the gorgeous corsetry in particular, along with divine make up and wigs -which aid greatly in creating the glamorously seedy atmosphere of the club.
But it isn't that seedy. Despite all the visual sumptuousness, there isn't as much visual debauchery as there should be. How is La Cage, the club, dangerous? Why does it so offend Dindon? The idea the right-leaning politician would be offended by drag performers seems quaint and anachronistic. The decision to keep the musical's time period in Europe of the 1970s may or may not be a wise one - but since when were European depictions of sex ever squeamish? Tim Shortall's scenic design surely could be far more robust in portraying the seedy-meets-sexy atmosphere. Georges and Albin's apartment has precisely one nude male torso, and it's tame at best. Why? If the show's about sexual freedom, personal expression, identity and acceptance who are the producers afraid of offending? Perhaps La Cage is hoping to attract a more family-friendly audience, which goes a way to explaining the toned down aesthetic of the show; it's a pity this toning-down happened, however, because in so doing, it's lost the heart of what made the original so delicious, and, by default, so important. At least Hamilton and Sieber kiss at the show's close -but it feels too little, too late.
Les Cagelles, the musical's club performers, show incredible versatility in acting, dance, and even acrobatics, though the world they inhabit is tamely depicted in the touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical.
So while the true identity of La Cage is kept safely under wraps, we're left with solid performances, splendid designs, and Christopher Sieber's wonderfully warm performance. In a world where the bland is perceived as death, well... La Cage isn't quite tofu, but it's close. Perhaps slathered with a bit of schmaltz, it's not so bad. It's up to you to find out for yourself.