Artistry Over Swishy Perils

‘La Cage’ still conveys grandeur; ‘Frankenstein’ unchains lots of creativity

While the minstrel show portraying African Americans as a derisive stereotype is considered demeaning and racist, demonstrations of the limp wrist, swishing gait or pronounced lisp of homosexual stage characters can still evoke gales of laughter. Though they may sing defiant, act-ending numbers about pride, gay people are still more often than not portrayed in mainstream entertainment as curiosities, freaks and outsiders—separate and by no means equal—as in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” or “Will and Grace.”

Show business has always been about what sells, but against a political backdrop where bigotry is being legalized, the continuation and gleeful exploitation of the stereotypes is disconcerting.

I’ve never liked the politics of “La Cage aux Folles,” even in its original stage version, and the recent revival seems quaint and pandering, at least when it comes to delivering any kind of message.

Yet, power also comes from choosing one’s battles wisely, and there comes a time when even the most politically enlightened among us simply has to give it up and give in to what supremely talented theater artists—many of them gay, of course—can achieve.

You can argue politics till the cows come home, but there simply is no disputing that director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Jerry Mitchell have put together the splashiest, most dazzling and utterly fabulous show on Broadway. For those who could possibly have managed to miss it, the story is about what happens when Georges, a French nightclub owner and impresario, and his long-term lover and star drag performer, Albin, are asked to meet Anne, their son Jean-Michel’s fiancée, and her mother and father, who is a crusading politician intent on closing Saint Tropez’s bawdy nightclubs.

Chaos and hilarity ensue. We re-learn that gay people can come through in a pinch and that in perilous situations drag is a lifesaver. The book by Harvey Fierstein is uneven and very nearly comes apart in the second act, but is a mostly engaging story. Jerry Herman’s score, filled as it is with bright, up-tempo numbers in the major keys, lays on its persistent good cheer with the proverbial trowel, and the result is infectiously affecting. Only the most politically resolute could fail to be charmed.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this production, especially when compared to the original, is Mitchell’s choreography. The action is punctuated by performances by the resident troupe at the show’s titular nightclub, known as “Les Cagelles.” Mitchell, whose signature style is generally characterized by a bold athleticism that synthesizes the traditions of modern dance, the work of Bob Fosse and classic Broadway dancing—just for starters—has created work that is consistently astonishing. Whether a kick line, an homage to the cheesy tourist shows at “Le Moulin Rouge” or the walk-and-pose showgirls of Vegas and Hollywood, there isn’t a number that isn’t brilliantly rendered and performed with astonishing precision. Mitchell cleverly ups the stakes with each number, and his dancers are more than equal to the challenges, with consistently breathtaking results.

The choreographic splendor is all enhanced by the sensational costumes by William Ivey Long whose excesses of marabou and glitter are perfect, not to mention the perfectly tailored resort wear for Georges and Albin.

In the lead roles, Gary Beach as Albin and Daniel Davis as Georges are terrific, both separately and together. Beach, who was the original Roger DeBris in “The Producers,” is obviously no stranger to over-the-top flamboyance, which he underpins with great heart that adds depth to the portrayal. His performance of “I Am What I Am” is fully committed with more anger than I remember George Hearn, the original Albin, delivering. Likewise, Davis is warm and charming and his Georges is obviously still smitten with Albin. A wonderful singer and a suave presence, Davis ends up owning much of the show precisely because he is unafraid to be loving, and when the two men kiss at the end—something they did not do in 1983—it’s sweet and natural.

In the supporting roles, Michael Benjamin Washington is fun as Jacob the butler/maid, and Angela Gaylor is charming as Anne. The wonderful Ruth Williamson, whose presence in any cast is always a reason to see a show, is delightful as Jacqueline, a restaurateur. Her part is largely a plot device, but Williamson’s wonderful voice and wry presence help lighten up the interminable second act number, “The Best of Times.” Gavin Creel, who was so terrific in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” brings his strong voice to the role of Jean-Michel, but even when he realizes the errors of his thinking and the love his parents (Georges and Albin) have for him, never really gives more than a mechanical performance.

Taken for what it is, “La Cage” is a huge Broadway show that wants nothing more than to entertain—and it goes to all lengths to do that. If it isn’t the best portrayal of seemingly gay people, and it panders to stereotypes, at the very least a lot of gay people are employed and working their hearts out to give 100 percent to anyone who walks into the Marquis Theatre. And the result is largely magnificent. One mark of maturity is the ability to see things as they are, take the chip off one’s shoulder and have a good long laugh at oneself. And if a gay boy or girl can’t do that from time to time, who can?

The Flying Machine’s “Frankenstein,” at the SoHo Rep for only one more weekend, is a stunning piece of theatrical wizardry. In just over 75 minutes, the eight-member company tells the classic story and makes the diminutive stage seem filled to overflowing with passion and life.

Joshua Carlebach, with additional text by Jason Lindner, has adapted the Mary Shelley novel, keeping the themes of man and nature that are typically excised to focus on the horror of the monster. This is a story of people driven to rash acts by their contemplation of the essence of life, not the rampage of a mindless monster. Carlebach has written and directed a kind of theatrical poem that uses narrative, the human voice and unceasing movement to deliver an experience with an emotional and intellectual impact that is nothing short of brilliant.

The intentionally cramped and versatile set by Marisa Frantz evokes time and place, adding emotional heft to the direction, and the costumes by Theresa Squire are dead on. I wasn’t sure why all the actors wear pointy ears, but it is a wonderful abstraction that works in the context.

This is a daring and fulfilling piece of work—a defining piece of artistry by all involved and theater on a high and invigorating plane.

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