TAMPA — La Cage aux Folles is like the full employment act for drag queens. Sometimes, a woman is slipped into the well-muscled chorus line at the naughty nightclub on the French Riviera, but darned if I could tell if there was any double gender bending in the revival that opened Tuesday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. This is one show where the wig and makeup designer (Richard Mawbey) gets prominent billing, and deserves it.
The greatest drag queen of all is Albin — stage name Zaza — the headliner who gets his heart broken when the young man raised by him and his partner, the suave emcee Georges, won't invite him to his wedding. Jean-Michel, the thoughtless groom, fears that the flamboyant (is there any other kind?) transvestite who was like a mother to him will offend his father-in-law-to-be, a homophobic morals crusader.
Christopher Sieber gives a bravura performance as Albin, who enters wearing a terrycloth robe and fiddling with the yellow rubber gloves he wore to debone a chicken, but soon becomes the "ravishing, sensual, fabulous" diva Zaza. The transformation takes place during A Little More Mascara, which Sieber sings at his dressing room table, gradually going from aging queen in a corset to a creature of glamour and fantasy: "And everything's ankle straps, marabou and Shalimar!" (Marabou is a stork whose feathers are used in millinery.)
I Am What I Am is the great gay anthem, and Sieber's rendition to bring down the first act's curtain is incredibly powerful. Just as effective — but so different — is his deft comic turn as he rehearses to meet the bride's parents, not as Albin but as butch Uncle Albert, learning to walk and pick up a piece of toast like John Wayne.
As a celebrity put into the show to sell tickets, George Hamilton fulfills his main function as Georges, but he is a flaccid foil to Sieber's Albin. At 72, Hamilton still looks like a million bucks — the leonine silver hair, gleaming toothpaste smile and, yes, a terrific tan — but his timing always seemed a half beat off on opening night. This was Georges as TV game show host, not a wicked, witty cosmopolitan. Hamilton's husky baritone was serviceable enough in the touching duet, Song on the Sand, but he had run out of gas and was nearly inaudible by the boffo finale.
The relationship of Georges and Albin is what makes La Cage tick, but it's impossible to take your eyes off the Cagelles, six high-kicking queens in skimpy drag who open the show with We Are What We Are. They embody Lynne Page's choreography, such as an inventive bird cage number, and costume designer Matthew Wright had a field day dressing them.
La Cage is the gayest musical around, even with the recent arrival of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but what makes it universal is the heartfelt emotion in numbers such as Look Over There, Georges' homage to the enduring love of Albin. And being a Jerry Herman score, it has plenty of hummable tunes, like Jean-Michel's ballad to his fiance, With Anne on My Arm, and the buoyant sing-along The Best of Times.
As Albin's butler/maid, Jeigh Madjus is a scene stealer par excellence. Gay Marshall is fun as the perky restaurant owner, Jacqueline. Dale Hensley plays Francis, the stage manager who has an ill-advised fling with "Hanna from Hamburg" (Mark Roland), the showgirl with a whip. As Jean-Michel and Anne, Billy Harrigan Tighe and Allison Blair McDowell are good-looking ciphers. Anne's parents, played by Michael McCormick and Cathy Newman, get their just deserts in the outrageous denouement.
This La Cage, which was directed by Terry Johnson for London's West End before going to Broadway, is an improvement on many stagings of the musical, because it captures the small-time, somewhat seedy drag scene that book author Harvey Fierstein conceived, though there is still loads of glitz and glitter (and clever use of beach balls). Joey Chancey conducted the band — including a concertina for that Edith Piaf touch — which is split between twin balconies in Tim Shortall's set.
Before the show, Lili Whiteass (Todd Lattimore), a statuesque blond in frilly pink, warmed up the audience with insults and patter that owe quite a lot to Dame Edna.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.