You may be astonished at how deeply resonant are the themes of Signature Theatre’s effervescent, heartstring-strumming revival of “La Cage aux Folles.”
Here is a 33-year-old musical in which a middle-aged gay couple, one of whom is a drag performer, have the morality of their relationship challenged by a pompous bigot of a politician. The task of telling him that he’s hopelessly out of tune with the times is left to his more enlightened daughter who, after hearing him spit out the word “Homosexuals!” at the pair, cuts him down to size with the blithe retort: “Father, don’t bellow. They know who they are.”
The musical by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman arrived on Broadway at a different point in our evolution as a society, when AIDS was not yet a devastating scourge and the acronym LGBTQ was not yet in wide circulation. But as “La Cage” has occasion to remind us, we’re not all that more evolved. At a moment when, in North Carolina, a state next door to Signature’s Virginia home, a controversy is raging over a law barring localities from protecting certain rights based on sexual orientation, the show’s mantra of having pride in oneself takes on revivified significance.
On an even more unbearably sad note, the massacre early Sunday in an Orlando nightclub catering to LGBTQ people — the kind of haven of carefree self-expression that the musical celebrates — makes it seem as if our world is headed, in some infuriating ways, terrifyingly in reverse.
“We are what we are,” sing the men of the show’s rouged, corseted and glammed-up St. Tropez chorus line. If these words don’t affect you, “La Cage” seems to be saying, maybe you should examine who you are.
Although the show does at times lay on the sentimental Broadway schmaltz a bit thickly, director Matthew Gardiner cannily counteracts songwriter Herman and book writer Fierstein’s more syrupy inclinations by encouraging his stars, Brent Barrett and Bobby Smith, to build a bond that abounds with bona fide affection. Their relationship here seems no mere musical-comedy contrivance. (The musical is adapted from Jean Poiret’s original French play, which became a 1978 hit French movie, which was then remade in 1996 as “The Birdcage” with Nathan Lane and Robin Williams.) Barrett, a suave Broadway veteran, sports a Burt Reynolds mustache and offers up an appealingly virile and nuanced turn as Georges. He’s the proprietor of the titular risque nightclub and 20-year romantic partner of Smith’s Albin, the volatile, self-dramatizing performer known on the stages of the French Riviera as Zaza.
And what a marvelous platform Gardiner provides for the versatile Smith, an old-school trouper if there ever was one, cast over the years in roles both leading and humble at Signature and elsewhere. Wearing a rack full of costume designer Frank Labovitz’s witty, sparkly, aging-chanteuse frocks and Anne Nesmith’s grande-dame wigs, Smith is accorded a well-deserved spotlight for a performance that’s moving and generous and tinged with sadness. You get the full force of Albin’s hurt after Georges’s son Jean-Michel (Paul Scanlan) turns up, determined to have Albin stashed away while his sourly strait-laced in-laws-to-be (Mitchell Hébert and Sherri L. Edelen) come to dinner.
You absorb, too, courtesy of Smith’s barely suppressed fury, the measurable effect of Albin’s frustration at being looked on by Jean-Michel as an embarrassment. All kids are mortified to some degree by their parents, but this is different, because it is essential to Albin that he be acknowledged as a true parent, a nurturer, a real person; this is the core of “La Cage,” and in this instance you have an actor who absolutely knows how to let us see it.
The story itself is a box of bonbons wrapped up in marabou and bedazzled with a million sequins. Lee Savage’s well-appointed set is a nightclub stage adorned with filigreed faux ironwork and offering views to each side of the dressing rooms in which the chorus boys — Les Cagelles — apply their makeup and practice at mirrors. On the balcony above is the eight-member band conducted by Darius Smith.
The score is classic Jerry (“Hello, Dolly!”) Herman, a songbook of solid, affirmational anthems (“I Am What I Am,” “The Best of Times”) and ballads of lesser distinction (“Song on the Sand,” “Look Over There”). Put through their dance paces by Gardiner, the athletic Les Cagelles — Sam Brackley, Darius K. Delk, Ethan Kasnett, Jay Westin, Isaiah W. Young and Phil Young — bring expansive Broadway pizazz to the nightclub numbers, especially the opening “We Are What We Are,” in the close confines of Signature’s main stage, the Max.
Scanlan is fine and sings touchingly as Jean-Michel, although he might be encouraged to dial up the comedic energy a notch, especially since he’s matched with vivacious Jessica Lauren Ball, who plays fiancee Anne. Hébert and Edelen display their customary acumen as the puritanical politician and his wife, and DJ Petrosino does exceptionally well as the maid, er butler, er maid, Jacob.
“La Cage” is another impressive bit of handiwork from Gardiner, who was responsible for Signature’s sensational revival this past winter of “West Side Story.” Buoyant and sleek, this incarnation of Herman and Fierstein’s musical also allows us to reflect on the more serious implications of the story. If Signature can accomplish this with a musical that on other occasions has seemed merely politically correct and frilly, there is no telling what else this company can do.
La Cage aux Folles, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Costumes, Frank Labovitz; music direction, Darius Smith; set, Lee Savage; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Lane Elms; wigs, Anne Nesmith; makeup, Andre Hopfer. With Nova Y. Payton, Michael Bunce. About 2½ hours. Tickets, $40-$106. Through July 10 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.