Don't Be A Drag, Just Be A Queen...

With the end of the year just around the corner, there was one final item to scratch off my 2011 to-do list in order to close out the year, and it just so happened to involve two of my favorite things: musicals and drag queens. Back in November, when other people were out pepper spraying each other in the face on Black Friday to get their hands on discounted Xbox 360s, I calmly sat in my hotel room and did my shopping online via Ticketmaster. As it turned out, Broadway in Chicago, the consortium that brings big-name touring shows to the Chicago theater scene, was having its own Black Friday sale, with $25 tickets to all the shows it was featuring through the end of the year. Though I had either seen most of them before, or had no desire to see the remainder, there was one that stood out as an item from my yearly to-do list -- La Cage Aux Folles. 

Given my love for men in drag, it should hardly be surprising that I have a soft spot in my heart for The Birdcage, the 1996 film starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. I'm pretty sure my mom took me to see it in theaters (drag queen movies had something of a moment in the mid-1990s, which also saw the release of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)), and I've subsequently shared the film with all of my friends since then. The Birdcage was based on the same 1973 French play as the eponymous 1983 musical by Harvey Fierstein, so seeing La Cage Aux Folles when it came to town was definitely a priority for me. The cheap tickets were merely a bonus.

You do get what you pay for, however, and in our case, that meant that we had truly atrocious seats. I like to be able to at least get a sense for the actors' facial expressions, and in this case, it simply wasn't possible. At least there was plenty of sparkle and choreography to keep us entertained.  According to the playbill, this production was supposed to take an edgier, more realistic view of the material, much like the long-running, widely-toured 1998 revival of Cabaret. I'm not sure if they were merely unsuccessful in this, or they were being too subtle for me, but this staging of La Cage seemed campy as ever to me, though camp and drag queens go hand-in-hand in my book.

I was also underwhelmed with George Hamilton's portrayal of Georges, the role played by Robin Williams in The Birdcage. First, I didn't buy him as a homosexual, and he had virtually no chemistry with Albin, the aging drag performer who is supposedly his long-time partner. Second, he often seemed unsure of himself, both in his lines, and his movement (despite his 2006 stint on Dancing with the Stars), and that detracted from the overall quality of his performance. Finally, he couldn't really sing, and I find it generally inexcusable when musicals cast a celebrity just for their name recognition value and less for their actual talent. I'd much rather watch a relative unknown with a powerhouse voice.

Finally, I didn't feel that the production had any truly memorable songs. As I sit here writing, I'm having trouble remembering any that stand out, except maybe for the tear-jerking reprise of "Look Over There," performed at the end of the show, in which Jean-Michel finally owns his family with pride, instead of trying to force them into a heteronormative vision of social acceptability. Instead of rushing home to download the soundtrack, I found myself coming away from the theater with a desire to re-watch The Birdcage, which, in my opinion, is a far more compelling adaptation of this gender-bending tale.

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