"I Am What I Am" is such an ubiquitous -- especially the dance remix -- anthem around Pride that we forget where it came from and what it once meant. The production of La Cage aux Folles
that is running at the Royal Alexandra Theatre reminds us; Christopher Sieber, magnificently embodying the larger-than-life and unapologetically flaming Albin, rips the roof off the theatre with a defiant and heartbreaking rendition that closes the first act. The work of gay liberation is still far from over, and while we have made huge strides since the days when first the film and then the musical version of this innocuous yet subversive comedy became mainstream hits, there's still work to be done and laughs to be had.
The plot will be familiar to most gays, and the songs, courtesy of Jerry Herman, are familiar simply by virtue of their tuneful adherence to the classic Broadway formula. It's what this production attempts to do with the material that is radical. Instead of the big overwhelming glitz of the original production -- "We're here, we're queer, and we're so loud and covered in fabulous sequins you'll have no choice but to get used to it" -- the theatre is transformed into a somewhat realistic version of an upscale drag club on the French Riviera. The concept is successful on one level: making the audience part of the audience brings the gay right into one's lap where it can't be ignored. It is unsuccessful on another: people have paid big bucks for a big show, so the numbers have to be spectacular, and the kibitzing between the dancers and the reliance on tacky realism as an excuse for flubbed notes and moves -- quite probably deliberately choreographed -- is distracting and contradictory.
Sieber has to balance difficult demands -- he is playing a drag queen who is past her prime but is still required to stop the show on several occasions. To create a believable, and lovable, character out of that is an accomplishment not to be underestimated. That is the other imbalance in the show; the drag queens are the heroes, but they are also the objects of ridicule. Feminity is celebrated but is also the butt of the jokes. A gay audience can treat it as a winking joke, but it is hard not to be conscious of the straights who outnumber us even at this gayest of all musicals. This is where the casting of George Hamilton is a stroke of genius. The man is a movie star and a Hollywood legend, and while his acting is wooden, his dancing nonexistent and his singing shaky, his charisma carries over off the stage and the audience is with him every step of the way. It is either a very sly performance or a carefully calibrated directorial choice: Hamilton seems out of his depth until the finale, where he rallies and becomes a full-fledged song-and-dance man, but before then he has created a naturalistic portrait of a man who just happens to be in love with the outrageous and -- literally, in one case -- spotlight-hogging Albin. Hamilton's eyes are full of love, he seems utterly unfazed by whatever sexual shenanigans happen around him, he touches with familiarity, and the final kiss seems a natural progression: we believe that these two men have spent 20 years together, and that makes hot homo love as natural as apple pie. It's hard not to have qualms about a straight movie star playing gay, but either Hamilton's heart is in the right place -- he has been quoted as saying the role is an homage to his closeted brother -- or his abilities as an actor have been severely underestimated.
The showgirls are fabulous and risqué enough to almost shock. Jeigh Madjus turns flamboyance into strength and steals every scene he is in. The heterosexual characters do what they can with what they are given, but it is impossible to upstage a drag queen, even when, in the case of Michael Lowney as the son, you unleash a powerhouse voice that rattles the rafters. Best of all, everyone leaves the theatre humming "I Am What I Am" and meaning it.
La Cage aux Folles runs till Sun, Nov 18 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St W.