Tonight I attended the acclaimed Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles. And, sitting there at the Longacre Theatre, I was struck by how touching the musical is. La Cage is a show I've known my entire life. It's my mother's favorite musical and, while other parents were trying to learn Fraggle Rock songs to sing to their children, my mother was singing "I Am What I Am." (To be honest, it would have been better for me if she never sang, but that is another story.) I myself had only ever seen the last Broadway revival, which I found completely flat. I knew there had to be something more to the show. This revival shows you that there is and, also, shows you the major thing missing from the last revival: any sort of heart. Of course, I knew that watching it in 2004. I felt the 2004 production would do better with more of a soul. I just was unsure, despite my mother's words, whether the problem was actually with the show itself. It's not. I believe the problem with that revival was a man by the name of Jerry Zaks.
I cannot claim to be an expert on Zaks' early career as a director, I did not see anything of his before 1992. So I leave open the possibility that before 1992 he was different. Now though, what you get from him are slick, soulless, bright productions. That works for shows like Guys and Dolls and Smokey Joe's Café. Those aren't musicals that require a tremendous amount of heart. Little Shop of Horrors, on the other hand, needs an emotional center. It shouldn't all be, "Hey, look at those shiny costumes... and that plant!" You want to feel for Audrey and Seymour. During the Zaks production, I didn't.
The same went for his La Cage. It was very shiny and polished. I remember all the sparkles. After all, no production of La Cage is complete without sparkles. We want the glitz, we just also want there to be a depth to the story beneath the sequins. As an audience member in 2004, during "Look Over There," I looked over at the watch on my wrist. Tonight, while watching this new production, I was paying complete attention; my mother next to me was tearing up.
I did not see The Addams Family before Zaks got his hands on it, but I have a feeling he was responsible for putting the jazz hands in. Because that is often what his solution is: let's give it a little something extra, let's add a sashay. But a lot of shows require a true emotional core--if you don't have that, you won't help yourself by placing more Cagelles in a cage.
The lesson of this new La Cage is that even a tuner known for glitz and glamour can show you the best of times without tons of accouterments. It's not about how shiny the beaded lashes are, it's about whether we care that the ugly duckling becomes a swan. Jerry Zaks doesn't seem to direct with that in mind. If it is in his head, it's not coming across on the stage.
Many of my friends saw that last revival and decided that La Cage was pointless. That may possibly be their permanent view of the show, this column will not sway them. (If I could get everyone to agree with me, I would become a producer.) But to those of you out there who like the music and just weren't taken by the last production, give this La Cage Aux Folles a visit. It's fun and touching. It's bawdy and bizarre.