On London’s West End, on New Years Day this year, some friends and I attended the new musical production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, based on the decade-old Australian film, soon to make the leap to Broadway. The success of the film relies on its rather straightforward (pun intended) telling of three drag queens on a trek across the Outback. Where the musical faltered was in giving the poignant tale a campy, glittery retelling that replaced the film’s stubborn heart with sequined style and flair.
But now on Broadway, La Cage aux Folles, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical Revival, manages to celebrate the glitz and glamour while still revealing a tender and genuine side.
Partly, it’s the book and original songs that completely out-diva the 70s soundtrack of Priscilla. But it’s also the strength of the acting, the direction, and the design that find a difficult balance between treating the characters seriously and with respect while putting on a damn fun and sassy show.
Special snaps to Douglas Hodge as Alban who delivers one of the most passionate comedic performances I have ever seen, mixing delicious ridiculousness with an internal strength and determination to live life with a personal integrity that is downright inspiring.
And to compliment the individual power of Alban’s persona, we have an army of Les Cagelles that provide the tantalizing backbone of the show but also offer something more. These birds simply dominate and devour the stage when present. Bright and bitchy, these lovely ladies will lick you up with their eyes, strip you naked with a glance, and make you seriously question your conceptions of gender with their mile-high kicks, broad shoulders, and shapely corsets.
They’re larger than life, to be sure, but not cartoons or clichés. They’re confident and playful and offer no apologies, demanding that they be accepted and appreciated for what – and who – they are. Priscilla puts forth a similar call for acceptance and equality but it’s a message that’s spoken rather than felt, as it is here with La Cage.
The sheer talent of Les Cagelles (watching them all jump into the splits on multiple occasions is painfully enjoyable) suggests that gender is, in many ways, merely a performance, an illusion as the show calls it. Once we accept that – as an audience, and as a society – its not a far leap to understand that people “are who they are” and deserve to choose how they present themselves (including their choice of partner).
Within that fabulous birdcage, a strong heart beats. And if you don’t see it right away, Les Cagelles will show you the light.