In the real world, about 30 years separates the two stars of the current touring production of "La Cage Aux Folles," the first national outing, so to speak, of Terry Johnson's formidably distinctive 2010 Broadway revival, which originated at the progressive Menier Chocolate Factory in London and arrived in Chicago on Wednesday, offering a refreshingly gritty holiday attraction for those who prefer to see Christmas from a different angle.
Johnson's ragtag little band of tightly-wound Cagelles (all male now) are not the elegant, perfectly coiffed creatures of many a dusty touring revival, but a more raunchy and restless bunch of guys as gals, far more believable as the constituent parts of a tawdry resort cabaret where the greasepaint and corsets can only cover up so much. They're a long way from Donny and Marie, although some parties may dispute that.
In New York, Johnson seemed to delight in what appeared, superficially, to be mismatched casting, so I suspect he was intrigued by the idea of pairing the former matinee idol and bon vivant George Hamilton (Georges) with Christopher Sieber (Albin), the actor's actor and formidable physical comedian, known for hilarious Broadway turns in "Spamalot" and "Shrek the Musical," but also capable of extraordinary warmth and vulnerability. If you judge your "La Cage" by the wattage of the anthem "I Am What I Am" (and there are worse criteria), buy your tickets with confidence. Sieber, an actor who can frolic with glee and then cut away every bit of superfluous flesh in an instant, savors every last lyric of self-actualization as he roars his way to the back of the balcony.
Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's justly beloved musical has always cultivated a complicated relationship with real life, of course. Still, there is a price to this tour casting, given that the show was not originally conceived with it in mind. You can't help thinking at times that Georges and Albin have enough to deal with, given the filial ingratitude of their about-to-be-married son, without such an overt mismatch of age. And, more significantly, the well-structured power dynamic of this 1983 musical, which typically relies on the commanding baritone of the rock-steady, straight-acting Georges, is scrambled by Hamilton's stiffness, hesitant narration, slow pace and general lack of certitude, if not guts and honesty. Yet there are also moments were an older Georges adds to the poignancy of the proceedings. Sieber, whose physical bulk and palpable big heart gives Albin the gravitas that Georges usually dispenses, takes care of his co-star, leading him through numbers much as a lover would take his older partner by the hand. These sudden onrushes of sweetness often pull one up short, and they add another layer to what — for me anyway — is a very familiar show. If you've seen many revivals too, you will be intrigued by how much this fascinating tour reverses the common tropes of these two famous Broadway characters. And just in case I've not been clear, this is not a run-of-the-mill touring "La Cage." Au contraire, mesdames et messieurs.
Sieber and the Cagelles are, for sure, the main reasons to see this production (although the character actor Cathy Newman gives the show a hilarious sting in its tale). There's only one problem that emerges with Sieber's very fine performance — you don't buy the scene where his Albin tries to learn to be a man. It's not that Sieber has not taken care of the other side of the coin, it's just that his comedy reveals an actor who can play both genders with total ease. By going there and then wanting us to believe he can't, he wants it both ways. He can't really have it, but, well, it's "La Cage." He may as well try.
In general, Johnson's directorial approach is akin to Sam Mendes' Broadway revival of "Cabaret." Johnson wanted to cut away the matinee-friendly gloss, add a dose of throbbing, realistic angst, take some risks that they didn't dare take in 1983 and reveal the raw truth behind the curtain. This is mostly achieved by some added business, a clever design from Tim Shortall that avoids any spectacle they would not have been able to pull off in this setting, and some exceptionally clever adjustments in tempo that change what the songs seem to say. In most scenes, Johnson's concept is brilliantly successful, especially in "We Are What We Are," where the illusionists fight back hard against the little with which they have to work, and in the title number, where Sieber's improvisation reveals a man for whom performing is clearly substituting for his own self-perceived imperfections. Until he learns to fight.
Herman and Fierstein, of course, are no Kander and Ebb, and Johnson doesn't quite know what to do with, say, the moment when the show offers a parody of a man in mourning, one scene after we've heard the very real pain and defiance of "I Am What I Am." One wishes he'd gone further in those sillier Act 2 scenes, teasing out the honesty without killing the humor, and in the many moments when he already pushes this show much further than it usually gets to go. But he did not come up with a consistent tone for everything. That's tough with "La Cage." This is still a musical comedy that celebrates people who, like most of us, are trying to live life as they wish to live it, even with all the forces that get in our way.
When: Through Jan. 1
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets: $32-$100 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye