BEVERLY — How durable a vehicle is “La Cage aux Folles’’?
So durable that a North Shore Music Theatre production of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical manages to deliver a boisterous good time despite significant shortcomings in the two lead performances.
Charles Shaughnessy (“The Nanny’’) cuts a dapper, disarming, and wryly appealing figure as Georges, the owner of a Saint-Tropez nightclub, who is coping with some unusual crises on the homefront. But Shaughnessy too frequently sings off-key, which diminishes the emotional impact of stirring ballads like “Song on the Sand’’ and “Look Over There.’’
When he played Henry Higgins in NSMT’s “My Fair Lady’’ a couple of years ago, Shaughnessy was able to resort to the old Rex Harrison speak-sing style and get by, but Herman’s score offers fewer places to hide.
The other key role, of course, is that of Georges’s longtime lover Albin, who doubles as Zaza, the chanteuse who is the main attraction of the nightclub’s drag revue. Unfortunately, Jonathan Hammond’s portrayal of Albin seldom delves beneath the character’s cartoonish mannerisms and flamboyant costumes to show us the vulnerable and multifaceted human being underneath.
Though Hammond nails some of the character’s broad comic moments — especially when he slips into a John Wayne impersonation during the “Masculinity’’ sequence in act two — his Albin does not cement a claim on our affection, sympathy, and respect the way Christopher Sieber did so brilliantly when he played the role in a production of “La Cage’’ that came to Boston a couple of years ago. In the musical numbers, Hammond periodically elects to sing behind or ahead of the beat, but his voice is not strong or supple enough to make that technique effective.
Yet NSMT’s “La Cage’’ relentlessly bulldozes its way to enjoyability, thanks to the show’s creative team, its supporting cast, and the warmth, color, and variety of Herman’s score. Fierstein’s book goes a bit heavy on message, but stages and screens were not exactly overflowing with depictions of loving gay relationships in 1983, when “La Cage’’ premiered on Broadway. So there was and is a special meaning to the bond between Georges and Albin, and to the show’s broadening of the definition of family.
Director Charles Repole expertly navigates the theater’s in-the-round configuration, maintaining maximum velocity to achieve a state of controlled chaos, with sequined performers rushing up and down the aisles, or appearing and disappearing by means of a hydraulic lift beneath the stage. Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has devised some buoyantly eye-catching routines for the performers who portray Les Cagelles, the corps of dancers in the nightclub revue — and they respond with bursts of high-kicking, somersault-turning energy that consistently enliven “La Cage.’’
The musical’s story line is a slender one. Georges has a son, Jean-Michel, the result of a long-ago tryst with a showgirl. Jean-Michel is played by Zach Trimmer, who deploys his light tenor to expressive effect in his performance of “With Anne on My Arm.’’ The Anne in question, played by Stephanie Martignetti, is his fiancee, the daughter of M. Dindon (Larry Cahn), a self-appointed guardian of morality who is crusading to shut down clubs like La Cage aux Folles.
Hoping to present himself as the product of a traditional family, Jean-Michel insists that Albin — who lavished parental love and attention on the lad for many years — make himself scarce when the potential new in-laws arrive for dinner. But it doesn’t quite work out that way.
The NSMT production showcases an indelibly funny, scene-stealing performance by Nikko Kimzin as the freewheeling housekeeper to Georges and Albin. There’s also a treat for “30 Rock’’ fans: Paula Leggett Chase, so hilarious as Randi in the “Queen of Jordan’’ episodes of that late and much-missed NBC sitcom, plays Jacqueline, the owner of a prestigious restaurant. Jacqueline has always seemed a contrived character, arbitrarily shoehorned into “La Cage’’ as a plot device, and that’s how she seems here as well, but Chase brings it off with brio, heavy French accent and all.
But the real star of “La Cage’’ is Jerry Herman. The modern master of the showbiz anthem, he crafted some beauties for “La Cage,’’ including “The Best of Times,’’ a rouser of a singalong if ever there was one, and, of course, “I Am What I Am.’’
That song, delivered by Albin/Zaza — first brokenhearted, then steadily rising to defiance — resonated as a declaration of gay pride and individuality in the 1980s. It continues to do so today, when same-sex marriage is increasingly understood to be a basic civil right. Whatever the pluses and minuses of any given production, “La Cage’’ reminds us that when it comes to social progress, popular culture often has an important role to play.