The Menier Chocolate Factory: The name even sounds some euphemistic cover for a rehab clinic. Which is more or less what it is. Great American musicals suffering from exhaustion go there for a therapeutic London production, only to reemerge on Broadway some months later, renewed. In the past few seasons, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George took the waters at the Menier, with mostly positive effects. Now La Cage Aux Folles, Jerry Herman's proud, plumed '83 drag-stravaganza, has made the pilgrimage and returned to New York (a scant five years since its last, unloved Broadway incarnation) slimmed down to fighting weight, fully in touch with its emotional core and endowed with the scrappy cabaret flash and gratifying snap its immediate predecessor pointedly lacked. Also—like a lot of patients fresh from rehab—this La Cage clearly feels cleansed and energized, almost to the point of mania. It still has a bit of centering and settling in to do, as its galvanic London star, Douglas Hodge, adjusts to the show's new American cast (and they to him).
Of course, we wouldn't want La Cage to get too settled, lest we realize what a conservative little diversion it is. Like the drag demimonde that serves as its candy-hued cyclorama, this is a show carefully designed to walk (and sometimes toe) an eyebrow-pencil-thin line separating the "dangerously" outré from the deeply conventional. Defrocked and de-glittered, La Cage (based on a 1973 French farce by Jean Poiret) basically retells the familiar story of an older generation threatened and ultimately transformed by the towering selfishness of the young. At its center are two of the safest gay tropes on offer: The fatherly sophisticate whose "mannerisms can translate as tasteful affectation," and the ultrafemme queen whose swishing and mincing is "no less than suspicious." Georges (a cautious Kelsey Grammer) and Albin (Hodge, best known for his Pinter work in London) are longtime companions now well into middle age, with all the push-button acrimony and indivisible affection that entails. Georges runs a drag-themed nightclub in St. Tropez; Albin is his leading lady, "Zaza." They live above the club, with an apartment full of fabulously androphilic art and a fame-craving "maid" named Jacob, played with glee by In the Heights scene-stealer Robin de Jesus. (De Jesus impishly blends old-fashioned camp with YouTube-star scruff, single-handedly updating the show for the American Idol era.)
Georges and Albin have a grown son, Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively), whom Georges sired in a one-off hetero fling. Jean-Michel comes home to announce that he's marrying the daughter of a crusading right-wing politician (Fred Applegate), and he'd appreciate it if dear old dad played it straight for a meet-the-in-laws weekend. This, of course, means temporarily ejecting Albin from the household: As the spotlight song says, he is what he is and can't pretend to be anything but. At first, Hodge's histrionics seesaw a bit, as if he's doing a level-check. His roller-coastering vocal dynamics on "A Little More Mascara" are so jagged, his mike can hardly keep up. (He can go from inaudible to earsplitting in a spangle-flash.) But the energy soon evens out—as does Grammer's stately butch reserve, which comes off a bit chilly, even shell-shocked, at first. By the time Georges breaks the bad news to Albin, however—telling him he won't be welcome on the most important night of his son's life—the marriage has jelled, and the stakes are damnably clear. Albin responds with "I Am What I Am," an act-ender to end all act-enders that's always made up what it lacks in musical and lyrical complexity with an intense and wounded sincerity. Hodge adds something new: a touch of sputtering rage that's neither heroic nor pathetic. Too agitated to hold stage center, he jerks himself around, looking for release, but finding only an audience. And for once, the performer delivering this fight song doesn't seem to assume his listeners share his feelings or his fight. For all the spittle and vibrato on display, Hodge's number feels strangely like a private moment. This Albin is not articulating a credo; he's simply furious.
In fact, we're all a bit upset by that point, watching Georges spend most of the show's hyperextended first act tiptoeing around his beloved, concealing the insult to come. The unwinding of the farce itself—the conning of the prigs, the wig-flipping and entendre-doubling—must wait until Act Two. Director Terry Johnson handles this protracted tap dance—the chief structural hurdle in Harvey Fierstein's otherwise delightful book—by embracing the suspense, milking every beat as a separate cabaret act, and, most important, unleashing the Cagelles. No mere chorus, these lovely laddy-ladies form a kind of feathered Voltron: an enormous, muscle-bound, boa-tentacled, zero-body-fat superorganism—all "muscles and tits," as the lyrics promise. More of the former, though: Lynne Page's dance numbers are athletic, even gymnastic, and we're very deliberately made to feel the effort that goes into performing them.
In the end, it's the tang of sweat under the greasepaint that invigorates this La Cage. Great strides have been made, socially and theatrically, since the show premiered in the dead heart of the Reagan eighties. Yet, 30 years later, what might've gone down as the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? of gay life remains comically and politically relevant. That's both a testament to a solidly built show and an indictment of our profound limitations as a society. But ultimately, it's a sense of Sisyphean, show-must-go-on effort —and the conviction that the most worthy battles, like the most worthy marriages, must be fought in perpetua, ad infinitum—that distinguishes the Menier La Cage. "The best of times is now," declares Jerry Herman's famous eleven o'clock anthem. Meanwhile, unspoken (yet deeply felt) is the weary recognition that it's been Now for an awfully long time.