The great Jerry Herman/ Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage aux Folles has just closed at Washington’s Kennedy Center. But never fear. It opens in Tampa next week, followed by eleven more American cities, extending its fast-paced tour through mid-September. The production began its run in DesMoines in December, following the closing of the popular New York revival the year before.
We all remember La Cage aux Folles. It’s based on a hilarious little play and the popular 1978 French film about two elderly gay men, Georges and Albin, who run a San Tropez nightclub. The Broadway musical, which opened originally in 1983, added the talents of writer Harvey Fierstein, composer lyricist Jerry Herman, and director Arthur Laurents. Together they created a magnificent old-fashioned musical extravaganza, (which was by the way gay-themed), and opened it in conservative Boston. It had wonderfully lovable characters, plenty of laughter and tears, and an unforgettable score of memorable and singable songs. They kept the story of the original play on which the film was based: Georges’ son announces he will marry the daughter of a conservative politician, and the two conspire to prevent her parents from meeting the flamboyantly cross-dressing Albin, thus spoiling the wedding — even though Albin has raised the boy as his mother. Hilarity ensues. By the end of opening night, La Cage, starring George Hearn and Gene Barry, was a smash, and audiences were enthusiastically embracing songs like “I am What I am,” “Song on the Sand,” “and “The Best of Times is Now.”
By the end of the New York revival, Harvey Fierstein himself, now almost 60, had stepped back into the role of Albin. He was joined by matinee idol Christopher Sieber (Kevin Burke in TV’s Two of a Kind) as his straight man, Georges, who looks after and protects the hyper-sensitive Albin, the love of his life. I mention this because when it came time to cast the national tour of the revival production, Sieber was cast in the opposite role, as Albin, and George Hamilton came on board to play Georges.
No, really! THE George Hamilton! The perpetually suntanned (still suntanned) George Hamilton. A true matinee idol of the 60’s and 70’s. The veteran actor who appeared in dozens of films, who once played Hank Williams, Evel Knievel, Zorro, and Dracula! The one who used to lower his beltline on talk shows to reveal his “tan line.” The man is 72 years old, and possessed of enormous courage to take on a major ten-month national tour requiring him to sing and dance eight shows a week. … Especially since his talents do not lie in either direction. And when Joan and I saw the show at Kennedy Center a few weeks ago, even with Desmoines and Chicago under his belt, he was still having a little trouble with lines. He seems to walk through his part half-heartedly, hesitantly, as if to say, like the song, “I am what I am,” … “and if you don’t like it, lump it.”
The strange thing is, audiences DO like it. The chemistry between Hamilton and the enormously gifted Sieber actually works. Sieber sings and dances rings around his partner, as if to say, just say your lines, George, if you can, and I’ll take care of you out here. It feels like just the reverse of the originally intended relationship, but it works, largely because of Hamilton’s seeming naïveté. In my own naïveté, I came into the lobby during intermission thinking, “Poor George. If anyone ever honestly told him just how bad he was in this role, he’d be heart-broken.”
However, in retrospect, I don’t think this wily actor is in the least bit naïve. He is milking his own matinee idol status for all its worth, just as Georges himself would at 72, and he knows full well that the most important way to be true to the play is to be true to himself and NOT act, or pretend to be able to hold a long note, or sing consistently on key, or dance with the agility of his youth, when he knows he can’t. It’s as if he is admitting to us: “People, I am George Hamilton, after all, and not a Broadway star. Georges, like me, is till trying to run things, but has grown insecure and quiet with age. And that’s what I play. So sit back, relax, and accept that. Because that’s what I must do, and what we all must come to do.” And audiences are enthusiastically empathetic to him with this unspoken vulnerable little acknowledgement. It’s an enormous risk, but it seems to be paying off, so hats off to him.
Of course it must be said that the choice would have not worked had they not cast opposite Hamilton someone as dynamic as Siebert. As Albin, in both his male and female personae, he has an unbelievable voice range, enormous energy, and a dynamic ability to connect with his fellow actors and with his audience. As an added bonus, since he had played the role of Georges on Broadway for several months before it closed, he knows the part as well as his own, and can help with any dropped lines, etc.
The rest of the relatively small (23) touring cast, including those who defy any sexual identity, is excellent. They are certainly not lacking in energy, focus, and self-assurance, and they can dance like crazy.
One final caveat: I grow increasingly disappointed by the small representation from the Opera House Orchestra at Kennedy Center, which has accompanied the last few musicals we have seen there. The Program identifies eight musicians. You can’t see or count them, but it feels like a skeleton crew supplemented by a synthesizer or two. … which would be fine for a less classy and pricey venue. They’re good, but it’s a far cry from the rich sound of my original 1984 vinyl version. Still, I know we’re all living in an era requiring painful but crucial cost-cutting measures. Yes, I hear you, George. I accept, George. I accept.