If ever a show and director seemed custom tailored for one another, they are the Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein musical “La Cage aux Folles” and the multitalented Buffalo director Chris Kelly.
The musical was an audience favorite when it opened on Broadway in 1983, dragging drag into the public spotlight and bringing a happily sitcom-esque storyline along with it. Kelly, who cut his teeth on campy productions with Buffalo United Artists and has acted on many local stages, has become Western New York’s most innovative and adventurous interpreter of musical theater.
So it’s possible that the fact that this production of “La Cage” didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders when I saw it during its second public performance is merely a case of high expectations. But despite plenty of riotous moments and a phenomenally nuanced performance from Ben Puglisi as the lead character made famous by Nathan Lane in the film adaptation (“The Birdcage,” 1996), the campy exclamation points of the show too often distracted from its poignant passages rather than accentuating and amplifying them.
There are plenty of contributing factors to the show’s off-kilter equilibrium.
Part of it has to do with an enthusiastic but ultimately unconvincing performance from Gregory Gjurich as Georges. He plays a dapper nightclub impresario, charged with calming the perpetually frazzled nerves of his partner Alban (Puglisi) and with respecting the wishes of his son (Geoff Pictor) to marry the daughter of a prominent anti-gay politician (Steve Jakiel).
Another trouble is that the show hasn’t aged tremendously well, thanks to the unexpectedly rapid march of progress on gay rights that it helped to speed along. Americans’ attitudes about gay men and lesbians have evolved markedly over the past few years. That’s not to say a worthwhile contemporary production isn’t possible. But it means a musical with a conceit that was absurd at the time it opened now has the added challenge of transporting us back to a time when even a tangential association with a gay man was considered a political kiss of death.
For that reason, it’s understandable why Kelly, in league with set designer Chris Shenk and lighting designer Chris Cavanagh, has stressed the farcical and almost otherworldly nature of the show. It’s as if we’re looking at a sort of cartoon of the era rather than the actual era, which helps with the humor but makes the deep emotional content of the story much more difficult to access.
A significant exception to the confused emotional timbre of the show is Puglisi’s performance of what is perhaps the most famous number, the beloved anthem “I Am What I Am.” It comes after he receives the news that he is not invited to meet the conservative parents of his son’s fianceé, a revelation that visibly unmasks him as the wounded but indefatigable personality at the heart of the production.
Puglisi dives deeply into his character, his low, gravelly voice first seeming at odds with the flamboyance of his character but eventually developing into an instrument for a great deal of pent-up despair and longing. In Puglisi’s interpretation of Albin (known as Zaza on stage), we come to understand the specific way certain egos are vulnerable and may even deserve to be stroked.
Next to his all-in performance, Gjurich’s admirable sweetness and his dance scenes in an oversized white suit look constructed. And though the drag queens of “La Cage” turn in charming performances, from Kevin Donahue as the severe Hannah to Marc Sacco as Mercedes, their skill isn’t quite enough to bring out all the guts and glitter this show contains.
2½ stars (Out of four)
What: “La Cage aux Folles”
When: Through Oct. 13
Where: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
Info: 839-8540 or musicalfare.com