It’s hard to believe that the musical version of the French farce “La Cage aux Folles” is almost 30 years old. And yet, the original stage musical first premiered back in 1983.
The core story concerns Georges (George Hamilton), a middle-aged owner of a drag night club called “La Cage aux Folles” and his husband and drag muse Albin (Christopher Sieber)
Albin worries about growing old and losing Georges to a younger man. He abates his fears by putting “a little more mascara” on and it is under the mask of the feminine that Albin, as the club’s star Zaza, is able to face what life throws at him.
Until, of course, until the son they have raised together (Billy Harrigan Tighe as Jean-Michel), returns home to announce his engagement to the daughter of a conservative politician and his desire that when the future in-laws meet his parents, that Albin is out of the picture.
As Albin, Sieber is the reason to see this current tour. His rendition of the first act closer “I Am What I Am” is delivered with all the raw emotion and intensity needed for such an anthem. It’s a performance on par with Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You, I’m not Going”(from “Dreamgirls”) and Patti LuPone’s “Rose’s Turn” (from “Gypsy”).
Unfortunately, Hamilton fares far worse as Georges. I actually caught Jeffrey Tambor in the Broadway revival shortly before he quickly left the production and Tambor offered more in the role. Hamilton’s wooden performance and occasionally flat delivery of both line and lyric means he joins the growing list of iconic celebrities to grace the Chicago stage in roles that are ill-suited for their talents.
Jerry Herman’s score has never sounded better. My problem has always been that Herman was a little bit too eager to reprise many of the catchy tunes to death. Still, it is a rare musical composer who manages to leave you wanting more, not less.
In terms of gay theater, “La Cage” belongs on the list alongside “Angels in America,” and “The Boys in the Band.”Without a doubt, it was and remains remarkably ground-breaking given the gay family central to its plot. Harvey Fierstein’s book, while edgy in the ‘80s, still manages to feel somewhat contemporary thanks in no part to the glacial speed at which gays and lesbians have received access to basic civil rights (Even a blue state such as Illinois still only has civil unions --a foot in the door, one toe at a time, if ever there was one).
If the show feels dated at all, it is in the fact that a same sex kiss is saved for the end of the second act (as the final curtain is descending). In an era when gay teens are losing their virginity in the primetime world of “Glee,” a same sex kiss at curtain seems hopelessly old fashion.
“La Cage Aux Folles” runs through Jan. 1, 2012 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets, $32-$95. Call (800) 775-2000; www.broadwayinchicago.com.