Uptown Players finds the human connection in a camp classic
In a world of Kinky Boots, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Producers and more, it can be a challenge to wrap your mind around the idea that, in 1983, La Cage aux Folles was absolutely revolutionary. There had been gay characters on Broadway before, and drag queens, and musicals with cross-dressing. But a story focused on a stable, middle-aged, married gay couple (one of whom we might call trans by today’s standards) that paints a sympathetic portrait of same-sex parenting? Unheard of.
Georges (Bob Hess) runs a St.-Tropez nightclub whose star, Zaza, is also Georges’ longtime partner Albin (Mikey Abrams). Albin is what we might call “high-maintenance:” temperamental, flouncy, self-involved, vain … but also tender and nurturing. So when their son Jean-Michel (Georges’ biological offspring from a hetero one night stand 25 years earlier) announces his engagement to a girl whose parents are right-wing homophobes, and asks that Albin “disappear” for the family dinner, feelings are hurt, courage is found, honor is restored … and the bigots get their comeuppance.
It’s a predictable froth, a pink meringue served with a dollop of bitter queen… I mean, cream. The entire point is to empower and reaffirm to the crowd the normalcy of even the most outrageous “lifestyles.” Albin, for all his flamboyance, is a traditionalist, perhaps having more in common with his future in-laws than anyone can fathom.
The production by Uptown Players now at the Kalita concentrates on the human scale of the story; despite the showgirls and feather boas and artifice, at heart this is a chamber comedy — a dinner farce where dessert is served with every course. Hess and Abrams make for a charming couple, all lived-in affection. When Hess’ Georges shames Jean-Michel (a lanky, honey-voiced Seth Womack) with the touching ballad “Look Over There,” even Ted Cruz might get misty. Hess’ coolness contrasts to Abrams’ over-the-top joie de vivre.
But in this version, much of the supporting cast gets to shine as well. In addition to Womack, Alex B. Heika’s frenetic houseboy Jacob steals every scene he’s in, and the six actors portraying Zaza’s backup dancers, Les Cagelles, execute some dazzling choreography and inhabit their characters with minimal dialogue.
The book (by Harvey Fierstein) was written with a different audience in mind; it touches trippingly but not deeply on issues that have somehow become more hot-button in the interim. And Jerry Herman’s score alternates between bombast and bathos. But who the hell cares? Sentimentality has its place, and that place is in a lavish summer drag show with heart.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 21, 2017.