“La Cage Aux Folles” at the State Theatre

The Hennepin Theatre Trust has opened it’s 2011-12 season with a guaranteed winner. Forget what you know about La Cage aux Folles and start over. Yes, the daffy premise and the flamboyant drag queens are there, but this production has a fresh honesty that’s utterly irresistible.

George and Albin are thrilled with the news that George’s son, Jean-Michel, is in love and engaged. Jean-Michel is less than thrilled about introducing his fiancé and her ultra conservative parents to his dad’s transvestite partner and so contrives a way to keep the truth of his upbringing from his future in-laws. It doesn’t work, of course. In fact the dinner is such as disaster it could only be remotely believable in a musical. But it culminates in a spontaneous, joyous celebration, which is a sham, but behind it is the lesson of love – true love.

The story would be unbearably sentimental if it weren’t otherwise so outrageous, but we are saved from its drippy sentimentality by sizzling song and dance, punctuated by perfectly timed missteps.“La Cage,” the club that George runs and in which Albin performs, is rife with personal drama; every slight mishap reveals some delicious detail about a character, a relationship and the club’s slippage into tawdry notoriety, and most of it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Christopher Sieber, a native Twin Citian, makes the helplessly neurotic Albin seem almost sane. He’s a big guy for the part – with a big voice showing stylistic flexibility and more than ample range from strong falsetto to the rich baritone that spilled far beyond the lone spotlight in the iconic anthem “I Am What I Am.” He pinned us to our seats with this great song, but I think he won us over much earlier. “Mascara” sparkled with fun, and “With You on My Arm,” performed with Hamilton, was a ditzy delight.

George Hamilton, playing George, the straight man in this couple, walks his way through much of his dialogue. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of acting going on – until he really needs to call it up (“Song on the Sand,” in particular) and there it is. Hamilton is known as an actor rather than a singer, but it’s his delivery of the songs that is most moving and the thing that seems to anchor the relationship between George and Albin. It could be that one of the main reasons this show and its wacko characters are so likeable is simply because Hamilton is so likeable, with an ability to win over an audience just by walking on the stage. Even messing up a little simple choreography didn’t seem to diminish his appeal.

It certainly looked like a real partnership between director Terry Johnson and choreographer Lynne Page with carefully timed nonsense bits that hit like little firecrackers, many of them executed by Les Cagelles: drag queens in Vegas-style showgirl garb, including heels. The dancing was fabulous. Not perfect, but that was clearly part of the campy fun, messing up just enough to endear us to these glitzy dolls, right from the get-go. It might have been easier for these gifted performers to just do it right all the time, but we wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.

The sentimentality of this enduring show works, I think, because the characters are atypical for traditional musical comedy, and the writing is just so good. Jerry Herman all but perfected the genre with lyrics as well crafted as any Broadway has ever had to offer, and music that has not only withstood several remakes but snagged Tony Awards every time. And there isn’t a single extra word in Harvey Fierstein’s sharp book writing.

This is simply classic Broadway musical theater – in drag. It runs only through this Sunday, Oct. 23. Recommended!

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