Friday 23 July 2010

La Cage aux Folles, or, The Risk of Seeing a Show a Second Time Pays Off

Despite the fact that it is July, it is New York City, and there is a heat wave going on, I have contracted a vicious sore throat and a head cold (I blame being frozen inside by the air conditioning and boiled outside by the heat).  Consequently, by the time it was time to set off for the theatre on Tuesday night I was beginning to wonder if an evening on the sofa might have been the more sensible course of action.  However, a friend of a friend had warned me that Kelsey Grammer was about to take a few days off, and I had already arranged for another friend to join me at the Longacre Theatre so the die was cast.  Joyfully as it turned out.  This is the only show I have seen this summer which genuinely deserved its standing ovation (unless of course one assumes that the standing ovation granted to Elaine Stritch at Night Music was in recognition of her services to forgetting the script).

I saw this production for the first time, like Night Music, when it premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  As with Night Music, I was curious to see how it would play in a larger theatre.  Then, as now, Douglas Hodge was playing Albin, but Philip Quast has been replaced as Georges by Kelsey Grammer.  I expected Hodge to be good; he was outstanding.  I was curious to see Grammer; I did not expect the superb performance he gave.

Unlike Night Music, which I felt had lost some intimacy, La Cage succeeds in having it both ways.  It is grander than the original Menier production – or at least it certainly feels that way – I am pretty certain no large inflatable beach balls were hurled about the tiny Chocolate Factory auditorium.  At the same time, even in the Mezzanine, one still feels very much part of the club atmosphere – because Grammer, Hodge and the Cagelles take care to deliver their performances well beyond the front row of the stalls.  Moreover, the crucial intimate moments still come across, particularly between Hodge and Grammer.

I felt that Hodge's performance had become more rounded since I saw him early in the Menier run.  He is magnificently self-possessed and in command of the stage as the many faceted Zaza, but equally running the gamut from neurotic to repressed as Albin.  But it was Grammer who really surprised me.  Grammer, like Hodge, can be as over the top as needed when introducing the acts at La Cage.  But, more powerfully, he is a performer who can convey an awful lot by his mere presence on the stage.  Moments when he takes Albin's hand, when he watches his son explaining that he's fallen in love and, perhaps most of all, when he watches as Albin serenades the restaurant guests in The Best of Times require a certain emanation from Grammer and he delivers every time.  This show is, essentially, a double act, and both members are spot on.

This show exerts itself to make sure the audience enjoy themselves.  In some respects the gags, particularly in the context of the night-club show, can be a little weak – but they stand up as real in the context of these characters – as those in The Addams Family completely failed to do.  The choreography, which again I remembered as being very good at the Menier, is just breath-taking – especially in the big hi-octane number La Cage aux Folles.  The supporting cast give it their all and, again for the first time this summer, there is not a weak link among them.

Yet the show is also a poignant love story with a powerful message, and I felt the same about this on seeing the show a second time as I did after seeing it in London.  I suspect that many of us would like to think that we no longer live in a world where couples have to hide their sexuality in the manner portrayed in La Cage.  We can at least say that with the movement for gay marriage we have begun to try to realise the equality which La Cage stresses, with its unequivocal statement that there is no difference between the loving marriage of Albin and Georges, and the marriage that Jean-Michel and Anne anticipate.  And yet the backlash to that same movement for gay marriage reminds us how far there still is to go.  You will have a good time if you see this show, you will witness some superb theatrical performances, but it would be nice to think that the show could draw in some of those opponents of equality and truly serve as a medium for helping them to understand that they are getting it wrong.

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