Before we had "Drag Race", before we had RuPaul, before Wigstock, Lips restaurant, Lucky Cheng's, "Too Wong Foo", and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (the movie) there was Harvey Fierstein. In 1978 he wrote a little play titled "International Stud", the first part of what was to become "Torch Song Trilogy". He created the role of Arnold, an effeminate, Jewish female impersonator who struggles to find love and acceptance. For this production he would win Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Play in 1982. He continuted to pioneer the humanization of the protrayal of gay men with his book to "La Cage aux Folles" in 1983, winning another Tony. Both were acclaimed hits; "Torch Song" ran for over 1200 performances and "La Cage" for over 1700, and both deal with gay men who have chosen to live alternative lifestyles and are attempting to deal with people's bigotry. Both shows deal with LOVE. And for some reason Harvey is one of those actors who knows how to play love. I have never met the man, but I have a feeling he must have a huge heart. Witnessing his performance for the first time I saw someone capable of portraying every aspect the character Zaza/Albin; the performer, the lover, the mother, the human being.
I don't have to look far back to his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" (I did not see him live in "Torch Song", only the movie) to know he creates loving, sympathetic characters, but the extras we get in "La Cage" are the glamour he brings to the role, probably reminiscent of his personal experience with drag performing, albeit on a much seedier level back then, and the fact that he is playing opposite the dashing Christopher Sieber as Georges. It's the first time ever that two gay men have played the roles together on Broadway, and it definitely shows in the chemistry between them. When Albin refuses to go onstage thinking Georges might be cheating on him it is clear he only wants Georges to butter him up with promises, that he is waiting to be wooed and charmed, as we are sure he has been many times in the past. And so it goes between them in scene after scene, the most comically effective being when Georges is trying to teach Albin how to be more masculine. Albin is sitting with legs closed and bent to the side, and George tells him to spread his legs and sit like a man. Albin finds this impossible to do, so Georges walks behind him and tweeks his nipples and BOING Albin's legs open. It may be a silly choice but it's a choice two straight actors playing the roles would not make, probably would never conceive of, and it got one of the biggest laughs of the night!
The chemistry they have is what makes this current cast so successful; we feel their love. The humor of the script always lands no matter who is in the cast, but without the love then Albin's "betrayal" doesn't sting, and his big Act 1 closer "I Am What I Am" loses impact. I won't sugar coat Harvey's singing - and in interviews he doesn't himself - at times it sounds like a bass-baritone frog croaking, but he did surprise me by using more voice than I thought he had. A friend told me that the same was true when Harvey went into "Fiddler on the Roof" which I unfortunately did not see. While it can't compare to the booming voice of George Hearn who originated the role, Harvey pulls out enough sung notes to make the anthem of the show the moment it needs to be. And as can be the case with singing-actors who don't have pretty voices, something about his tone actually made the song more real and moving for me. Both times I saw it I had tears in my eyes at the end of the number, and one friend I brought was also completely reduced to tears. It's musical theatre drama played to the hilt.
Harvey nails every joke in the script with comic precision (as one would hope since he wrote it) and with a perfected ease. His portrayal of the glamorous Zaza is larger than life, swathed in beads and sequins, topped with giant wigs; think Mae West playing Dolly Levi, she's a big lady who isn't afraid to play funny and sexy. Chris Sieber has a beautiful voice, sings his role very well, has the requisite charm for when Georges is onstage (including some very funny 'improv' bits with audience members), and is happy to play the 'straight man' enough for Harvey's comic antics to land. He might be a few years too young for the part, but it's not inconceivable that two men of these ages would be together, and to his credit not for one moment did I forget that Georges is IN LOVE with Albin. Even though Georges is technically the larger role, "La Cage" belongs to Zaza, and Harvey Fierstein is giving one of those performances people will talk about for years to come.
Sadly about a week after the year anniversary of it's opening on Broadway this revival of "La Cage" posted it's closing notice. It will play it's final performance this Sunday, May 1 at 2pm. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys musical theatre. If you can catch one of the last performances you're sure to have a great time.