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There’s nothing overly political in the venerable musical farce La Cage aux Folles, unless you consider political the notions that gay people have a right to exist and that their families are as valid as any others. Set in a St. Tropez drag club, it concerns a long-settled gay couple, Georges and Albin—La Cage’s proprietor and star attraction, respectively—whose 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel, asks them to masquerade as straight for a single evening. Jean-Michel has become engaged to the daughter of a crusading conservative politician, whom he fears shall whisk his bride away if he discovers his prospective son-in-law is the spawn of queers.
Derived from a popular French farce of the early ’70s that would also beget several film adaptations, La Cage’s Tony-winning, oft-revived 1983 musical iteration is more than a little padded, pun fully intended. While it boasts a few fun tunes—“Masculinity” remains a hilarious how-to for purging one’s comportment of any lingering swish—none are as indelible as the song Jerry Herman wrote first, the oft-reprised opener “We Are What We Are.” It gets re-costumed, the first act’s powerhouse finale as “I Am What I Am.” That’s a sentiment so broad its coalition includes divas like Gloria Gaynor and Shirley Bassey (who covered the Herman number) and man’s men like George Jones and Merle Haggard, who used its title, before the musical (Jones) and many years after (Haggard). La Cage was Herman’s 10th and final Broadway show of all-new songs. It seems fitting that his last major contribution to the American songbook was an expansive anthem of acceptance.
Signature Theatre’s new revival is fleet and robust, amplifying the show’s strengths and keeping its weaknesses girdled up tight. Harvey Fierstein’s book gives only its central family trio of Georges, Albin, and Jean-Michel any real dimension. If that leaves you wishing that first-rate talents like Mitchell Hébert (as that right-wing politician) and Nova Y. Payton (as Jacqueline, the proprietor of a trendy restaurant) had more to do, their underuse is offset by the presence of D.C. musical theater veteran Bobby Smith in the show’s star part. As both the neurotic but also legitimately wounded Albin, and La Cage’s resident diva, Zsa Zsa, Smith gets to flex every muscle he has after working hard in smaller roles for years.
While we’re talking muscles, Les Cagelles—the club’s half-dozen strong dance team—all look lithe and graceful executing director Matthew Gardiner’s crisp choreography. (Lee Savage’s set makes their dressing rooms visible on either side of the stage; you can watch them primp and gossip before the show proper begins.) Brent Barrett channels Robert Goulet and his mustache as Georges; he’s as confident and seductive as the role demands, and a superb singer, too. If Paul Scanlan and Jessica Lauren Ball both feel a bit reigned in as the young couple, they’re hardly the first square kids to disappoint their parents.
The play runs to July 10 at Signature Theater. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$100. (703) 820-9771. signature-theatre.org.