Much has changed since composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s musical La Cage aux Folles debuted on Broadway in 1983. The material, based on a 1973 French play (and subsequent French movie), has been mainstreamed thanks to a 1996 Hollywood remake called The Birdcage starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. The show’s implicit gay-rights message has been mainstreamed too, to the point that Jean-Michel (A.J. Shively) appears to be even more of a heartless cad for wanting to hide away his father Georges’ decidedly flamboyant spouse, Albin, when Jean-Michel’s ultra-conservative future in-laws come to visit.
But the show, newly revived on Broadway under the thoughtful direction of Terry Johnson, proves to be surprisingly sturdy — despite the three-inch pumps donned by the cross-dressing Cagelles at the Saint-Tropez nightclub that Georges and Albin call home. Herman’s score is studded with melodic winners, including the gay-rights anthem ”I Am What I Am,” which closes the first act on a stirring and deeply moving note. Delivering that show-stopper is Douglas Hodge, a transplant from Johnson’s 2008 London revival of La Cage. Hodge is practically perfect as the fey Albin, a tricky role in which an actor could easily slip into caricature or sentimentality. Hodge manages a careful balance, delivering a performance that is both hilarious and heartfelt; his character is admittedly over the top, but he always feels real. As his partner, the La Cage manager Georges, Kelsey Grammer proves to be an equal partner in carrying the show. Grammer has a surprisingly strong singing voice (better than his rendition of the ”Frasier” theme song might suggest), and he never makes you doubt his commitment to Albin or his son; you feel the anguish as he seeks to reconcile the conflicting desires of his two loves.
Hodge and Grammer provide a solid grounding for the show, but the rest of the cast offers all the flourishes you’d expect from a show rooted in drag performance. The six Cagelles are an impressively lithe and acrobatic ensemble (the choreography is by Lynne Page), and Robin de Jesus (In the Heights) is uproarious as Albin’s devoted butler/maid who aspires to be Cagelle himself. By the end of this well-paced production, it’s hard not to concur with the refrain of Albin’s second-act number: The best of times is now. A-