Saturday, April 2, 2011

Move Over Merman


You must see Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber in La Cage Aux Folles. If you do not have the price of a ticket, hustle your body in Times Square. If you have passed the sell-by-date, hustle someone else’s body. Just get there. Not since Taylor and Burton has there been such a hot theatrical love affair! And this time there is no question about “the kiss.” The chemistry between the two of them is palpable. You could reach out and touch it were you not in danger of burning your fingers.

Harvey Fierstein was born a Broadway star; with La Cage he is now a certifiable Broadway legend. It seems I have heard everyone but Alvin the Chipmunk sing “I Am Who I Am.” I have never heard anyone sing it with the searing authenticity Harvey brings to it. A critic friend says he doesn’t sing it so much as act it. I suggest he more than acts it, he inhabits it with wrenching heartbreak and ultimate pride. Spending more than fifty years of my life dedicated to the cultural expression of the GLBT community gives me the authority to beg every gay person in this country to see Harvey in this role. (And if they are smart, the straights should also come along for the ride.)

Christopher Sieber is the perfect “straight” man. Time after time he sets Harvey up with the ease of a latter-day George Burns. He is the ultimate smalltime showman. I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. He owns the stage like the late Robert Preston. He seems born to sing love songs. You can feel the generosity of his love, both for his son and Zaza and how the circumstances of the script are wrenching him apart. It gives a convincing central energy to the play.

Years ago when I saw La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway I was very disappointed. The cast was fine, the production if anything too extravagant. Not to mention far too polite. The Cagelles were about as dangerous as Disney showgirls. (And, as Mark Finley points out, the “oh-so-clever guess which of the Cagelles is actually female” was ultimately demeaning) It just did not come together. There was no heart. And except for the big song, the score seemed generic. In fact this got me into trouble when I saw the road company in Seattle in the mid 1980s.

My old pal Keene Curtis was playing Zaza so I gathered together a theater party and off we went to the opening. In the lobby I was approached by the critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who had interviewed me a week before. He knew the show and asked me how it had become such a big hit. I answered because the audience walks “into” the theater whistling the score. Early the next morning I got a phone call from a furious Keene asking what the fuck I was doing in his review! I was quoted in the very first line.

Shortly after I saw La Cage on Broadway, I moved back to the Northwest for family reasons. I ended up in Portland and met Darcelle, a drag performer with her own nightclub. Darcelle was a cherished landmark in Portland. She yearly had her own float in the Rose Parade, headed white gloved charity committees, was beloved by the community. Her club was seedy and down at the heels and packed every night with straight couples on their anniversary and secretaries having a gals night out. As I sat watching the show one night it hit me. This is what the club in La Cage should be like.

And this is exactly what Terry Johnson’s current production of La Cage Aux Folles has done. One look at the stage manager tells you these Cagelles are indeed dangerous. (Not to mention some of the hardest working dancers in this city) The club is such a comfortable old shoe, if it actually existed in this city, there would be nightly lines of tourist buses at the door. And suddenly the score seems fresh and joyous; you still walk in whistling it, but this time for a much happier reason. It is a cozy old friend you haven’t seen in a long while.

PS - I want to thank bon vivant and friend Jim Landé for being partly responsible for the revival of La Cage. Also thank you to marathon audience member Rick Hinkson, who took me as a belated birthday present. It was one of the best times I have had in the theater in a long while.

PPS - Harvey, I love you! What’s not to love about a kind and gentle legend?


3 comments:

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Daniel Murphy said...

Thank you for a great column on a great show, but, and more importantly, thanks for the over 50 years of service to our community. I don't see that often. It's been difficult to make a living working solely in this community; I've been here for almost 30. Thank you.

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