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Opening night at ‘La Cage aux Folles’

“La Cage Aux Folles” opened last night at the State Theatre, and will play through October 23, and what to say about it?

Max, Christopher Sieber, and the Wonderous Punch
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Max, Christopher Sieber, and the Wonderous Punch

La Cage Aux Folles” opened last night at the State Theatre, and will play through October 23, and what to say about it? It is, as the song says, what it is: a musical adaptation of a 1973 French farce about a Saint Tropez nightclub owner, his transvestite lover, their son, his fiancée, and her father. Plays being things that need conflict, the father is a conservative politician running an intensely homophobic campaign. Farces require deception, and so the nightclub owner and his lover masquerade as straight to placate the politician. And musicals require music, and this one features the work of Jerry Herman, who was also responsible for the songs in “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.” 

This adaptation, with book by Harvey Fierstein, is as it has always been: It’s strangely frontloaded with song and dance numbers, so its conflict doesn’t actually kick in until the second act and is resolved with the approximate alacrity of a television situation comedy. Almost all secondary characters are given short shrift, particularly the fiancée, the politician, and his wife, whose entire appearance amounts to little more than an extended cameo.

This is not intended as a criticism, by the way. I am not a fan of the well-made play, and when traditional theatrical elements, such as tight plotting or the development of a strong antagonist, are set aside, it is usually because the playwright’s focus is elsewhere. In this instance, Fierstein’s and Herman’s interests are twofold. First of all, there is the drag act at the nightclub that gives the musical its name. This is the first time I have seen the show live, so I don’t know what these performances were like in previous productions, but they are intensely interesting here. Drag has a dual history: It has, in the past, either proffered the spectacle of men perfectly mimicking women or mocking women, sometimes both at once. But this production of “La Cage” instead interests itself with imperfect imitation. The men in drag in the nightclub act could be bodybuilders, and their act knowingly mocks itself throughout. When they launch into a cancan, it’s positively anarchic. The men twirl with maniacal energy, occasionally spinning off into the laps of onstage audience members and stealing drinks from them. 

Drag acts have traditionally ended with the performers removing their wigs, exposing the fact that they are men. These performances continue the tradition, but there is no need. We were never uncertain that the performers are men. Drag in this play isn’t about men behaving like women. It’s about men behaving like drag artists, as though that were a third gender whose primary attributes are semi-competent athleticism, archly campy sensibilities, and fabulousness. 

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This could be mocking in tone. Fierstein himself was a female impersonator, and one gets the sense that he’s both celebrating and taking the mickey out of his own experiences. But Fierstein was also one of the early voices for gay pride, and this infuses the second detail the play focuses on: The character of Albin, star of the nightclub, lover to the owner, and de facto mother to the owner’s son. This is a role that could be nothing but a collection of stereotypes, as Albin never walks when he can mince and, in both the original stage play and Mike Nichol’s film adaptation (1996’s “The Birdcage”), he’s a shrieky, overly dramatic presence. Fierstein’s book gives the character deep wells of wounded dignity.

And here’s where I should discuss this production. It’s credited as starring George Hamilton, but Hamilton plays Georges, the club’s doting and somewhat retiring owner. Hamilton plays the role small, consisting mostly of adoring smiles and florid hand gestures, but his role is like that of the traditional lead of a couples dance — it is not to show off, but to show the partner off. And the partner here is St. Paul-native Christopher Sieber, who has gone on to an impressive stage career and starred in at least one Olson Twin television show (“Two of a Kind”), which, one imagines, prepares a performer to do just about anything. Sieber has great fun with Albin’s many camp mannerisms — he is often openly lascivious. But when Albin’s pride is injured, he shows a side that I haven’t seen in other adaptations: He rages. The first act ends with Albin singing the “We Are What We Are” song as a solo, and this moment was always an anthem of self-acceptance. But it’s something more when Sieber sings it. It’s more like a roar of outrage. He’s absolutely stunning in the show.

But no show is complete without an afterparty. The real ones generally happen impromptu, at dance clubs and bars, and, later, back in hotel rooms. But this show just opened, and so there was a formal afterparty at the Wonderous Azian Kitchen. I have been wanting to drink their Wonderous Punch ever since it opened, but it is served in a goldfish bowl and, as expert a drinker as I am, I am just one man, and this is a drink served with four straws.

Coco, castmember, cocktail
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Coco, castmember, cocktail

But I had a date last night, my girlfriend Coco, and she quickly discovered the cocktail makes a wonderful party prop. Whenever a photographer would pass, we would hold up the fishbowl and at once have our photos taken. After a little while, when the cocktail (which is a pretty traditional fruity tropical beverage, filled with cherries and orange slices) was partially drunk, we started photobombing other people’s pictures, so quite a few people may have gotten home to discover that, behind them in their photos, a massive cocktail hovers, and, behind this, two maniacs.

Coco started telling jokes about the drink. “It comes with an intermission!” she declared. “It’s so big you lose count on your first one!” It also made it easy to get photos with the cast, as they were all awed by the drink. I can’t even remember whether the Wonderous Punch is a well-made cocktail anymore. Like the plot of “La Cage,” it’s a little beside the point. It’s a drink that makes a party.