The frayed edges of La Cage aux Folles are affectionately attended to in its current iteration at SF Playhouse. Figuratively speaking, you can see the threads hanging loose from the skirt hems, but that shabbiness is also a large part of its charm. The musical opened on Broadway in 1983 during the AIDS epidemic. At the time, La Cage was considered an affirming — if sanitized and sexless — depiction of a gay couple. Some 30-plus years later, it plays as a sentimental love story between a baritone and a tenor.
Georges (Ryan Drummond) is the baritone and emcee/owner of La Cage aux Folles, a celebrated nightclub featuring drag performances. Albin (John Treacy Egan) is his husband and, as the drag queen Zaza, the club’s temperamental tenor and star attraction. Their regular, if melodramatic, routine is interrupted by the arrival of Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn), Georges’ 20-something son from a one-night stand. Much to the consternation of his father, Jean-Michel announces that his girlfriend Anne (Samantha Rose) has agreed to marry him. It’s the catalyst that moves the rest of the story gaily forward into farce.
Before he introduces Anne’s parents to Georges, Jean-Michel has one request: that Albin be excluded from the meeting because they don’t know he was raised by two gay dads. It doesn’t help that Albin is effeminate and prone to throwing tantrums. La Cage was written in an era when the practical application of gay pride was still in its infancy. When it won Best Musical at the 1984 Tony awards — beating out Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George — it validated the idea that a gay-themed show could appeal to a straight audience.
But in watching Jean-Michel now, as he denies Albin’s contribution to raising him, what was culturally acceptable then looks antiquated now. He reads as self-absorbed and villainous despite his eventual turnaround. As Albin, John Treacy Egan takes a stereotype, a hyperemotional queen, and makes the character multi-dimensional. His Albin is sweet-natured, droll, and self-aware. Egan, like Drummond, sang to the audience, and not at or above us. They were both able to tell the story through song so that the lyrics felt personal. Egan especially excelled at miming, his body capturing or exaggerating the physical gestures that mark us as gay, straight or somewhere in between.
The Birdcage (1996), starring Robin Williams, was adapted from the original French movie on which the musical is based, relocating the story from the Côte d’Azur to Florida. By moving the club to Miami’s main strip, the film conjured up a milieu that made sense for where the characters lived and worked. This production either overlooked and didn’t settle in on a precise time and place. The bistro backdrop in pale pastels could be France in the 1970s, but it could also be Minneapolis in the 1980s.
This lack of specificity is also noticeable when the chorus of dancers, known as Les Cagelles, takes the stage. As originally conceived in the French film, the nightclub La Cage aux Folles is a high-end boite. It may only have a contemporary equivalent in Las Vegas, where the audience pays a great deal of money to see an entertaining show while drinking the night away. From their costumes and choreography, these Cagelles might be go-go dancers or sex workers but they don’t reflect back upon or support Zaza’s character or routines. Visually, it’s hard to tell that they perform in the same club.
When the stage pivots between scenes, a room like one in a peep show, momentarily appears on the edge of the set. Various members of the cast appear in it, miming sexually provocative positions. The book and lyrics themselves are not particularly suggestive. Nor do they radiate much in the way of sexual tension or heat. Instead, they’re often explanatory. As in the two opening songs “We Are What We Are” and “(A Little More) Mascara” in which drag queens seem to be explaining their identities, their shifting sense of selves, to an unknowing, straight audience. The choice to include something more overtly sexual is an understandable reaction to the tame representation of gay lives. But all that hip grinding starts to feel like overcompensation.
La Cage aux Folles isn’t a sex romp. It’s about transforming gay shame, of lives hiding in the closet, into gay pride. When Georges and Albin sing “Song on the Sand” together, it’s a wistful tune about requited gay love. In their duet, Drummond and Egan remind us why that in itself used to feel like a revelation.
La Cage aux Folles, through Sept. 16, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St., 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph