Churlish as it may sound to say of a show that boasts six Amazonian drag queens, two extravagant transvestites and more sequins than you can shake a diamond-topped cane at, I wanted more from this new production of La Cage aux Folles. Perhaps it was the excellent past form of the Menier Chocolate Factory, which, with three recent West End transfers under its belt – Dealer's Choice, Sunday in the Park with George and Little Shop of Horrors – looked set to change its name to the Menier Hit Factory.
Or it could have been the element of delayed gratification – the show had been scheduled to open at the beginning of December as the venue's Christmas show but was delayed by a month as its leading man, Douglas Hodge, was struck dumb by a nasty bout of bronchitis and the chorus line was felled by the notorious norovirus. Whatever the reasons for my heightened anticipation, despite some fine leading performances, lashings of bubbly and ample padding, opening night fell somehow flat.
Jean Poiret's 1973 play was turned into a film before becoming a hit Broadway musical in 1983, the biggest new American musical of the time, outdoing such strong competition as Sunday in the Park with George to scoop six Tonys. It concerns a middle-aged couple, Georges, the amiable proprietor of St Tropez nightspot La Cage aux Folles ("where you may be dancing with a girl who needs a shave") and his lover and star attraction, Albin or "Zaza". When Georges' son (the result of a heady, never-to-be-repeated night with a chorus girl, Sybil) announces that he is to marry the toothsome daughter of M. Dindon, the head of the TFM party (Tradition, Family and Morality), the scene is set for a monumental lifestyle clash. And, of course, for one of the all-time great gay anthems: "I Am What I Am".
As with so many musicals, it's a fairly flimsy plot – and herein lies the rub. An online summary of La Cage aux Folles informs us that the story boasts such "forward-looking themes" as the "idea that gays can form stable long-term relationships and even raise children". Well, knock me down with a feather boa. These ideas may just have seemed "forward-looking" back in 1973. And indeed, they offered a cheering rallying call to New York's gay community as it was decimated by the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. But this is 2008 – and if you're going to revive the antique bird-cage, it surely needs a fresh injection of inventiveness and spectacle.
There is one show-stopping routine from "Les Cagelles" – a whooping whirl of can-can skirts, high kicks, splits and acrobatics – but Terry Johnson's production remains for the most part a curiously static affair. Jerry Herman's songs, all of them toe-tapping and hummable, encroach on the plot not with joyous spontaneity but rather a crashing, crushing inevitability.
That said, Johnson has found two pleasing leading men. Hodge – performing what is surely the most audacious body-swerve in casting history, from causing mass fainting at the Globe as the bloodthirsty cannibal Titus Andronicus to playing the sulky drama queen Albin – is infinitely watchable. Revealing an improbably good pair of pins, he exudes an unglamorous, boss-eyed charm as the ageing drag queen Zaza, relishing his performance as he rolls his words Piaf-style and prowls into the audience to join the hands of two rather unwilling Fleet Street critics. When it comes to his solo on "I Am What I Am", he cuts a husky, fragile figure, recalling a latter-day Liza Minnelli on the verge of collapse.
Philip Quast is equally likeable, if a little wooden, as Georges, graciously allowing his partner to steal every scene but displaying a mellifluous, tender voice on the touching "Song on the Sand". Una Stubbs puts in a charming performance as the prim mother-in-law, and Les Cagelles give it their all with some energetic hoofing, even if they're not always vocally perfect.
It's unlikely that this production will follow its predecessors to the West End, but in the intimate, brick-lined cellar of the Menier it seems to have found its ideal home. One word of warning, though: unless you want to see a lot more than you bargained for, avoid the cabaret-style tables of the front row.
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