Bashing leading man George Hamilton in this touring production of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's 1984 Tony-winning musical, presented by TUTS (and in association with George Hamilton Productions), feels a bit like kicking your dog.
Charismatic and perpetually tanned, Hamilton's always had a winning smile and gracious, debonair quality even back in his Hollywood starlet days, when he was second-listed in such drive-in fodder as Where the Boys Are and By Love Possessed, as well as heavier fare like The Victors and Your Cheatin' Heart. In later years as a TV interview guest, he's been an exceptional raconteur, telling racy stories about his social and sexual adventures, coming across as the most amiable, fun guy in the room. He's been in the public eye for 60 years (!) and still seems fresh and grateful for it all. He certainly seems like a very nice man.
You'd think he'd be a natural for the role of straight-man Georges, in contrast to the flamboyant drag queen Albin, in La Cage aux Folles, the gayest of all gay musicals. After all, the Broadway originator was equally super-straight, debonair Gene Berry, old-time TV's Bat Masterson and LA millionaire homicide detective Amos Burke. But Hamilton seems out of sorts and in need of a healthy vitamin-B shot.
It can't be opening-night jitters, since Hamilton's been playing the part in this touring version of the third Broadway incarnation, which won a 2010 Tony for Best Revival, since last September, yet he radiates a tentativeness that is sadly palpable. He looks stiff and ill at ease, as if someone's feeding him lines from offstage. Certainly, maestro Joel Chancey has to watch out for him, adjusting the rhythm of the songs to match his inattention or just plain lack of musical technique. Sure, we don't expect his voice to blow us away with any sort of plangent tone, but after six months on the road, shouldn't he have learned how to pace himself, or at least sing-speak like Rex Harrison or Richard Burton, two of the most dead-eared stars, who nevertheless have never been bettered in their iconic roles as Professor Higgins and King Arthur? He's coasting. His Act II is better, somewhat smoother.
His co-stars play around him, and the god-send is Broadway vet Christopher Sieber, a two-time Tony Award nominee for Shrek and Spamalot, as drag queen diva Albin. He is a marvel, adding needed heft and sparkling comedic timing to this star-turn. Somewhat over-the-hill and then pushed aside by his "adopted" son Jean-Michel (Michael Lowney, he of the wondrous tenor voice) when his fiancée's parents come to dinner, Albin is the musical's heart and soul. Sieber runs away with it, but never so much as to take anything away from Hamilton. He steals the show yet keeps both of them center stage. It's delightful to watch the give-and-take. In a startling moment that I don't remember from the original production, Sieber, looking like late-blooming Rosemary Clooney, sits on the stage apron to sing the beginning to Herman's up-tempo "The Best of Times." It's played slowly at first, like a ballad: simple, clear and very affecting. It goes right to the heart.
This pared-down version of La Cage stresses the grittier world of drag without the glamor and pizzazz of the original. These muscular Cagelles are much more toned and dangerous than their softer, nubile 1984 sisters. The show is as much a reflection of where we are as where we've been. The arrival's long overdue. Herman's "I Am What I Am," appropriated over the years as the GLBT anthem, is now strikingly performed with an in-your-face attitude, spat out by Albin while pinned under spots and blindingly agleam in sequins. Like Elphaba's first-act closer "Defying Gravity" in Wicked, it's a defining testament to survival and hits with much more punch than it used to. Times have changed. No apologies necessary.
La Cage was the first-ever gay Broadway musical (no fair counting Hello, Dolly or Mame.) With its message of acceptance, it's still family-friendly enough to bring the kiddies, and they've already seen more obvious and suggestive raunch in any prime-time TV show. I wish there were more music in it, for Herman's whistle-inducing melodies are terribly infectious, but there's always the sun-eclipsing smile of Hamilton and the gang-buster performance of Sieber to see us through. No reason to kick the dog.
Jerry Herman's Tony-winning musical plays through May 6 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at www.tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. Tickets start at $25.
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