Broadway Bloggin': Day 1

(CityBeat contributing editor/theater critic Rick Pender is in New York City for a few days, checking out the latest Broadway has to offer. Below is his first report from the frontlines of the Great White Way.)—-

Travel: Boy, is Cincinnati’s airport a ghost town these days. My flight on Wednesday morning had me wandering through a thinly populated B terminal at CVG (A terminal is closed completely). It didn’t help that Delta delayed my departure time by more than an hour, but the flight went smoothly and delivered me to LaGuardia in time to get to my hotel and make it to the matinee I had arranged to see.

La Cage Aux Folles:

The theme for my day was star power. In the afternoon, I had seats in the front row of the top balcony to see the Tony Award-winning revival of La Cage Aux Folles with Kelsey Grammer playing Georges, the owner of the club. He brings a commercially marketable name to the marquee, which is a necessity for most successful Broadway productions, and he has the acting chops for the role and sings and dances well enough to carry it off. (There’s a bit of residual prissiness that you might recognize from Frazier, but he plays Georges with more humanity.)

The show’s real star is Douglas Hodge who plays Georges’s partner Albin, who stars at La Cage as “Zaza,” a female impersonator who can jump from Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich with the flip of a wig. Hodge, who played the role in a previous London staging, truly deserved his 2010 Tony Award for best actor in a musical. (It’s just been announced that he’s extending his time in the show for another six months.) He is hilariously funny as a drag queen with a diva temperament, but he is also touching in his relationship with George and “their” son, Jean-Michel. And when he needs to pull out the emotional power — especially for his Act I finale, “I Am What I Am,” and the Act II scene at Chez Jacqueline, “The Best of Times” — he can stop the show, walk around and crank it right back up again.

La Cage is not, however, a two-man show. It’s as much about “Les Cagelles,” the half-dozen drag queens who perform nightly at Georges’s club. Sometimes these roles are filled with guys who are sleek and beautiful. Not here: They’re muscle-bound beefcake who make the most of their athletic and gymnastic skills in numbers like the opener “We Are What We Are” (with them silhouetted against brilliant red screens) and in numerous production numbers. Each of them has a personality that we get to know (especially dance captain Nicholas Cunningham as “Hanna,” a serious dominatrix) and their performing talents are both aerobic and impressive. Robin De Jesus plays Georges and Albin’s butler/maid Jacob who aspires to be a performer — and romps through a riot of costumes and wigs to advance his cause.

Director Terry Johnson has given the production (which originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory) a seedy but heartfelt veneer, which seemed appropriate and made the story all the more affecting. What’s interesting to me about this 1983 musical is how today it seems less shocking — it was nice to see it the same day that the California Supreme Court overturned the ban on gay marriage implemented in that state. The moralistic character of Monsieur Dindon (Fred Applegate), head of the “TFM Movement” (Tradition, Family, Morality), reads like many contemporary conservative politicians we recognize today. When he gets his comeuppance in the show’s finale, it’s a delicious moment.

Will this show (especially this production) make it to Cincinnati? Anybody’s guess. I think we’re ready for it, and I think local audiences would accept this show with enthusiasm. It’s simply great entertainment, even if it can’t entice Grammer and Hodge to tour.

A Little Night Music: My “star power” day had a second round on Wednesday evening when I attended the revival of A Little Night Music. I was in New York back in March and saw the same production (it opened in December) with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. Although Sir Trevor Nunn’s production (interestingly, it also originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory) received mixed reviews — too dark, said some critics; too coarse, said others — I thought it worked pretty well. It certainly emphasized aspects that I had not seen before, although it never departed from Hugh Wheeler’s script or Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

Zeta-Jones was the sexiest Desirée I’d ever seen, although her cool approach did not set off fireworks with her leading man, Alexander Hanson (a British actor who also played the role in London). Lansbury, at age 82, was a delight as Desirée’s mother, an elderly woman who had once been a courtesan with a following among European royalty. Both she and Zeta-Jones picked up Tony nominations, with Zeta-Jones winning as best actress in a musical.

The production was to close about a month after the Tonys, but, instead, two new stars were convinced to take on the roles — Bernadette Peters as Desirée and Elaine Stritch, at age 85, as her feisty mother Madame Armfeldt. With these two accomplished actresses in the central roles, the production is wholly transformed into something new. The balance of the cast has also matured and settled, it seemed to me, but there is still some unevenness. I liked Lansbury a lot more than Stritch as the advice-spouting grandmother who yearns for an era when things were more romantic. Stritch remains a bit too much herself for my taste. I have loved seeing her in many productions (including her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty), but in Night Music she’s playing the wicked Stritch more than the worldly courtesan. The audience ate it up, but I found her more distracting than entertaining.

On the other hand, Bernadette Peters is luminous, proof of how a single actress can completely transform a good production into a great one. She suffuses Desirée a warmth and engaging demeanor that Zeta-Jones’s cool presence lacked. Only a week after opening, she is bringing a depth and texture to the role that I’ve never seen rendered so completely. That includes her much more believable and heartfelt relationship with Hanson’s Fredrik. When she sang “Send in the Clowns,” it was beautifully integrated into the scene; Peters performed the song with tears streaming down her face, a poignant awareness that the love she had hoped for seemed unattainable. Having experienced that moment, I don't care if I ever hear it sung again by anyone else. It couldn’t be much better.

From start to finish, Peters’s portrait of Desirée made this production feel more real and heart-grabbing. The comedy remains (the show has been described as “whipped cream with daggers”), especially in the characters of Count Carl-Magness (understudy Bradley Dean filled in for CCM grad Aaron Lazar, the role’s regular performer) and his depressed, sardonic wife Charlotte (Erin Davie), and in the amusingly repressed couple of Anne (Ramona Mallory) and Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka). Also growing into a more multi-faceted performance is Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, the saucy maid who stops the show with the lusty song, “The Miller’s Wife.”

Some of you might know that I also edit The Sondheim Review, a magazine about the composer-lyricist. That means I’ve seen many productions of A Little Night Music. This one, with this cast, is my new standard of comparison, and Bernadette Peters is burned into my memory as the finest Desirée I’m likely to see onstage. She and Stritch are signed to continue with this production through Nov. 7. You’ll probably have to come to New York City to see them — it’s not likely that the show will tour with these two Broadway legends.

Photos of Douglas Hodge in La Cage Aux Folles (top) and Bernadette Peters and Alexander Hanson in A Little Night Music by Joan Marcus