Producers Fran and Barry Weissler have made a lot of money doing what’s called “stunt casting.” They take an appealing show, front it with a “name” celebrity they think audiences would pay to see, surround the star with a cast that can sell the show, and then if the star bombs the rest of the evening isn’t wasted. The Weisslers’ most successful example is Chicago, which has been running for years both in New York and on the road featuring celebrities of highly variable quality. They’re hardly the first to use the technique, though. Years ago, I saw Elizabeth Taylor in a tour of The Little Foxes. My mother, who had season tickets, was so excited that she arrived at the theatre early and wrangled an exchange for us to the front row. Ms. Taylor was gorgeous (she really did have purple eyes), but truth be told she was pretty excruciating onstage.
George Hamilton, who counts Chicago among his credits, is also pretty excruciating in Broadway/San Diego’s presentation of La Cage Aux Folles, but apparently his name sells tickets. The fact that he’s an investor in the show undoubtedly counts for something as well.
That’s too bad, because director Terry Johnson had re-envisioned the Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein classic to focus on the relationship between Georges (Mr. Hamilton), owner of a sleazy cabaret on the French Riviera, and his partner/cabaret star Albin (Christopher Sieber). Gone was to be the big, overblown production, and in its place was a grittier, more realistic, La Cage. And, in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and on Broadway (with Menier’s Douglas Hodge winning the Tony™ for his portrayal of Albin opposite Kelsey Grammer), such was apparently the case.
But, with the show cut down to tour and Mr. Hamilton being carried through his part by Mr. Sieber (who is, nevertheless, marvelous) there is a whole different dynamic at work. La Cage is no longer dangerous – it’s gone back to being a pleasant and nonthreatening musical comedy.
Even so, there is enough to enjoy. Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are among his best, even if a little bit of his Hello, Dolly! sentimentality (and, for that matter, melodic structure) manages to work its way in. There’s no more pretense that some of the Cagelles who perform at the cabaret might be women and some might be men – they’re all in drag, no doubt about it. Harvey Fierstein’s book may be a little creaky by now, but when Mr. Sieber sings “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act 1 there’s no doubt that its message of acceptance and equal rights still play strongly for both straight and gay people in the audience.
Do come early, though, because the pre-show is one of the best things about this La Cage. It originated on Broadway, and Todd Lattimore, who started the bit at the request of Mr. Johnson, is still with the company. Playing “Lili Whiteass,” Mr. Lattimore wanders through the plaza in front of the Civic Theatre interacting with patrons, then takes the stage to smart-mouth the audience for 15 minutes prior to curtain. Unfortunately, Mr. Lattimore disappears after that (he’s a “swing,” so he goes on only if one of the Cagelles can’t perform), but the audience is warmed up and ready to enjoy the show after he leaves the stage.
La Cage on tour may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s still worth a visit.