While the current revival of one of Jerry Herman’s greatest musicals has many things to enjoy in person, the two greatest of these come through loud and clear in the recording just released on PS Classics – the performances of Kelsey Grammer and A. J. Shively.
Grammer is a revelation as Georges, the host of a Riviera nightclub, La Cage aux Folles which specializes in transvestite shows. He’s the life partner of the star of the club, drag queen “Zaza.” (That, he says, makes him “just a normal homosexual.”) Grammer combines the glamour of a night club host, the pride in his partner of a truly loving spouse and the love for a son in nearly equal parts. He makes the role of Georges a full co-star to Douglass Hodge’s Tony Award winning starring role rather than simply a fine supporting performance.
The other performance of note, however – the one that drew not only a Tony nomination, which Grammer received, but an actual Tony Award – comes across on disc as a bit too artificially idiosyncratic for my tastes. It is Douglas Hodge’s version of drag star Albin who performs as ”Zaza”. It seemed to my ears too mannered on the disc and to my eyes as too mannered on stage. Of course, that is a matter of taste. Some people love his take on the role. Others find it acceptable, but no challenge to the memories of other performances. I’m in that later category. You can listen for yourself to make up your mind.
As the couple’s son Jean-Michel who has fallen head over heals for Ann, the daughter of a notorious bigot, Shively’s stage magic doesn’t come through quite as clearly on disc. While he sounds every bit as youthfully enchanting here as on stage when singing, he isn’t given the opportunity to set up his big dramatic moment in dialogue. The early episodes of selfish thoughtlessness which lead to his affecting apology are not set to music and, thus, are not included in the recording. On stage, however, he manages an accomplishment not duplicated by any other actor playing the role of Jean-Michel that I’ve seen. In his hands, Jean-Michel is so smitten by his Ann that he truly doesn’t even suspect that Albin, who has been his “mother” through thick and thin, would be the slightest bit put out by being put out of their home for one night and replaced by a “non-objectionable” substitute. All the other Jean-Michels I’ve seen have at least suspected they were asking something unreasonable, but were too focused on their own wants and needs to care. Shively makes you believe he doesn’t know he’s hurting the very person who “puts himself last so that you can come first.” Then, when he does see it, his apology is so utterly sincere and abject that he’s redeemed – almost absolved of blame.
The material seems to be foolproof. The original production won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book and ran for over four years. The rather tepid 2004 revival won Best Revival and a Tony for choreographer Jerry Mitchell but only ran for six months. This revival originated at London’s tiny Menier Chocolate Factory and transferred to London’s Playhouse Theatre where it received Olivier Awards as Best Revival of a Musical and Hodge won for Best Actor in a Musical. The transfer here to Broadway won for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (Terry Johnson) and, of course, Hodge’s award as Best Actor in a Musical.
Since the revival began in a small theater, the entire design is small and intimate and the San Tropez nightclub is envisioned as a smaller, less opulent establishment. Now it is in the 1,095-seat Longacre Theatre on Broadway, which although bigger than the 150-seat Chocolate Factory is one of Broadway’s more intimate spaces.
The theatre doesn’t even have an orchestra pit. The orchestra is placed on faux balconies on either side of a faux proscenium which set designer Tim Shortall constructed on the already fairly narrow stage. The eight member orchestra doesn’t sound anything like the big Broadway blaster of the original – and that is intentional. Jason Carr’s orchestrations don’t sound like eight players pretending to be 20, they sound like a jazzy club band. In the theater, the brass and winds are stage right and the keyboard and rhythm section are stage left, so there’s a definite sense of separation which PS Classics recording producer Tommy Krasker chose not to duplicate on the recording. There is sufficient stereo separation to make the entire orchestration clear however. You could count the notes on the clarinet part on “I Am What I Am” if you could count that high. When Don Downs stands to blast his trumpet introduction of the title tune in the “Prelude” (there isn’t a full overture), he’s center speaker rather than stage right but he’s every bit as exciting.