Christopher Sieber as Zaza and George Hamilton as Georges in "La Cage… (Paul Kolnik )
Time, or at least history, has been kind to “La Cage aux Folles.”
Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 musical based on Jean Poiret’s worldwide smash farce is a crowd-pleasing mélange of mascara and moxie that dominated the 1984 Tony Awards, ran over four years and produced standards in “The Best of Times,” “Song on the Sand” and that ubiquitous gay-pride anthem “I Am What I Am.”
“La Cage” returned to Broadway to take the 2005 best musical revival Tony, a feat the show repeated in 2010, via London and director Terry Johnson’s pared-down Menier Chocolate Factory rethink, which opened Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre. Starring a game George Hamilton and the remarkable Christopher Sieber, this smartly reconceived take displays both “La Cage’s” strengths and shortcomings, some by default.
For starters, the concept aims for the tawdry resources of an actual drag club. Between set designer Tim Shortall’s waterfall curtain and footlights, framed by St. Tropez dwellings that house music director Joey Chancey’s yeoman orchestra, and the audience warm-up by a local transvestite, we’re clearly meant to be at the jewel of the Riviera.
So says proprietor Georges (Hamilton) at the outset. With “We Are What We Are,” the swagged drape rises on a post-Fosse tableau, the six Cagelles (down from the original 12) silhouetted in Nick Richings’ sensational lighting. Their emergence, in costumer Matthew Wright’s spangled flapper dresses, and subsequent beach ball toss certainly underlines the essential intent.
Aided by Lynne Page’s spontaneous-feeling choreography and Richings’ perspective changes, Johnson deflates illusion through a circuitous tour from onstage to the upstairs apartment that Georges shares with Albin (Sieber), his 20-year partner and star. Hamilton’s charisma and bonhomie are intact, and Sieber is having a field day.
Like Tony-winning Douglas Hodge, Sieber plays Albin and alter ego Zaza for heightened yet realistic stakes. Matronly in his corsets and Marilyn drag, each incisive zinger masking childlike insecurity, Sieber owns the house from “A Little More Mascara” onward. The voice is in fine form, daring a pianissimo launch of “The Best of Times,” and Sieber’s acting reaches a furious peak at “I Am What I Am,” which he sells with blazing commitment, the best rendition seen locally since David Engel for Musical Theatre West.
Other pluses include the title number, as much about the invaluable Cagelles (Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter. Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell and Trevor Downey) and Zaza’s diva authority as technical dazzle. Jeigh Madjus is wryly outsized as “butler” Jacob; Michael Lowney’s limpid voice humanizes ungrateful son Jean-Michel.
And in this post-Prop 8 climate, Fierstein’s thin libretto about a gay household threatened by the son’s romance with a conservative politico’s daughter has undeniable topicality. Equally undeniable is that Herman’s inspiration pales in Act 2, Hamilton’s musical theater abilities are sorely limited, and the Pantages is three sizes too big a venue. Given the rapturous reception at the reviewed performance, such caveats are immaterial. Die-hard fans, reserve immediately.
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“La Cage Aux Folles,” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 22. Tickets start at $25. (800) 982-2787 or www.BroadwayLA.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Also, Segerstrom Hall at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. July 24-Aug. 4. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $22.50. (714) 556-2787 or www.SCFTA.org.