Deep into "La Cage," when Frankie Kein was bustin' out all the stops as Liza Minnelli belting a gangbusters "Cabaret," I jotted down some possible definitions I had been fumbling for since the lights went down.
"Retro drag," maybe.
Or "classic drag," to avoid confusion with the "Mad Men" or the Bettie Page '60s fashion thing (that would be a cool drag show, though).
Weak descriptions, perhaps, for vexing questions that should be understood by both the producers and reviewers of a show: Where does it fit in late 2011? Who is the audience? What's the appeal?
Let's start with some basics. "La Cage" -- still sometimes billed as "An Evening at La Cage" -- can now claim a little corner of classic Vegas. The relaunched drag revue played an amazing 23 years at the Riviera, before recession closed the girls down in early 2009.
Frank Marino, the Riviera's longtime star, put much of the cast back to work later that year with "Divas Las Vegas." The original name was resurrected at the Four Queens in July by Jimmy Emerson, who long provided comic relief as "Tammy Spraynette" and subbed as host when Marino was out.
Those who would frame this split resurrection as "only one can survive" might be a bit drastic. "Divas" plays well on the Strip as a bigger, brighter stage show. "La Cage" has the potential to be the shabby-chic cabaret alternative, which is more the usual way to see drag in the basements and bars of San Francisco or New York.
"La Cage" is a good fit for the comfy Canyon Club, which was only briefly operated as a music venue but still has its sofas and plush trappings. It could become the whole nightclub of the "La Cage" movie namesake, with servers in drag, etc. But after weeks of an extended "soft" opening -- the official press night was Thursday -- the club is an asset largely unexploited: The audience shuffles in, settles quickly into rows of straight-back chairs, and the show begins.
But any preshow attempt to generate a party atmosphere probably would have been wasted on this audience of mostly older couples last week. "La Cage" was working to install the requisite Lady Gaga tribute in time for press night. Fine, but it would take a lot more to jump the East Fremont divide, where a young crowd was pulling in for the Neon Reverb club hop on this night.
Full circle to those questions: After all these years, is "La Cage" still an only-in-Vegas dare for Midwesterners? Or is it its own kind of nostalgia now, for people who took that dare on their honeymoon in 1987?
If you sat in one of those zebra-striped Riviera booths back in the day, much of it will ring familiar: Emerson's comedy spacing lip-synced diva tributes, which range from startling look-alikes (Ryan Zink's Reba McEntire) to the camp-funny nonresemblance of Carlos Rodriguez to Madonna in a cowboy hat (he's much closer in his first turn as Jennifer Lopez).
The drag dudes are still framed by real female showgirls, an old "La Cage" quirk, as is Lane Lassiter showing up near the end as Michael Jackson (shouldn't it be a woman doing the impression as reverse drag? Or is that too easy?).
Emerson energizes the room, even charging into the crowd to interface row to row: "California? If you're not a fruit or a nut, you're a flake." He's great at this, with both a plus-size body and persona that makes his flyaway wigs -- think Tippi Hedren after "The Birds" attack -- all the funnier.
When he ratchets up the raunch with balloons and a vibrator in his Tammy Spraynette bit, I was thinking the show finally hit the over-the-top camp level it needed from the get-go. But others seemed happy with Brent Allen's joke-free, deadpan takes on Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.
If this show didn't have the "La Cage" name, I would argue that it's time to reinvent the format for the small room and a new era, with drag as the baseline and not the sole purpose.
But the old formula worked for decades, and it may still work now. If not, the producers have some questions to answer.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.