You have to hand it to Harvey Fierstein.
Look at his musical “La Cage aux Folles,” now in a tepid and uninspired production at Long Beach Civic Light Opera’s Terrace Theatre. There’s nothing like homosexuality for still raising hackles among large sectors of straight middle- and upper-class society. Yet by the time Albin, the transvestite star of the gay club La Cage aux Folles, has the local right-wing, blue-nose politician on the run, Fierstein owns his audience--straight or no--with a sly showman’s touch.
Fierstein knows that pounding the table for gay rights will send them up the aisles. Wrap it in a musical, with music and lyrics by that supreme middlebrow, Jerry Herman, and they’ll hum along.
This may be the gay reformist wing of theater (as opposed to the uncompromising play “Jerker,” which riled the FCC), but it worked for the crowd last Saturday night.
Of course, it’s no secret that the tourist audiences that flock to Broadway loved Fierstein’s affectionate way with the transvestite world. That’s one of the reasons “La Cage” was such a hit (much bigger than Fierstein’s more serious “Torch Song Trilogy”). We’re carefully screened from the transvestites’ doubtlessly painful offstage existences, except for Albin’s. But even Albin, being this show’s Ethel Merman character, is a pure Broadway creation. His ballad “I Am What I Am” may shout Albin’s gayness; it’s also one of Herman’s patented singing telegrams for sunny optimism and no-one-can-stop-me-now glory.
On top of that, Fierstein’s book is about something every couple with children can identify with: Can Albin and Georges approve of the family their son is marrying into? The twist on this, of course, is what sets “La Cage” apart from countless mediocre musical-comedies on similar themes. In every other way, though, this is not a show for the ages--and it certainly isn’t comparable to some of the classic warhorses that have been the Long Beach company’s stock in trade over the years.
Still, it can be a fine show with the right cast. When you had a George Hearn as Albin, you were willing to look past all of the cracks. With Harvey Evans under Sam Viverito’s direction, you tend to examine things more carefully. We never noticed before, for instance, how ludicrous Albin sounds singing like a man (as he does in his act) when he’s masquerading as Georges’ first (female) wife. Does it really take his removing his wig for the right-wing politician to catch on?
It’s also hard to swallow that Georges runs a Broadway-scale operation in this small French Riviera resort. But that’s what a Broadway-scale musical of Jean Poiret’s original play requires: Make it big (including a runway into the audience), and make it loud. This may be the Cote D’Azur, but Fierstein and Herman always appear to be thinking Vegas.
Larry Kert may be over his vocal problems with Georges by now, but they were painfully evident Saturday. Things improved slightly in the second act. However, Kert and Evans hardly stood out from an undistinguished cast, including Kent Gash as Jacob, the outlandish maid; Deanne Spicer as the fiancee and Carolyn Marcell as a semi-French-accented maitress d’ .
Brian L. Green, as the beleaguered son, does have a real Broadway voice, and he played with a range of emotional nuances that was surprising in a hall that usually swallows subtleties whole. In a show this overblown, one is always grateful for small favors.
At Terrace Theatre, 202 E. Ocean Ave., Long Beach, through Oct. 23 on Wednesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $10-$26; (213) 432-7926, (213) 480-3232 or (213) 436-3661.