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It’s ‘Who knew?’ deja vu for ‘La Cage’

A touring musical headed to The Smith Center proves the name “La Cage” is still to drag what Chippendales is to the G-string.

But the Vegas drag show that perpetuated the name for decades struck out for the second time recently at the Riviera. You might be less surprised to know “La Cage” closed Memorial Day than that it was back at the hotel, where it was an institution from 1985 through 2009.

“All we needed was some advertising,” says Jimmy Emerson, the star and, for a time, hands-on producer of the revived title.

Nothing is ever gone forever in Las Vegas if someone thinks he can wring a buck from it. But this deja vu closing of “La Cage” seems to leave us with only the eternal tension between longtime producer Norbert Aleman and the drag performers in the cast.

Talking with Emerson last week seemed like a full-circle conversation. “I’m through. I’m done. I’m finished with the name ‘La Cage,’  ” Emerson says.

He is heading back to the familiar role he played for years: Filling in as vacation guest host for Frank Marino, who opened “Divas Las Vegas” with several “La Cage” cast members at the Imperial Palace after La Cage closed the first time.

And this time, Emerson swears he is through with Aleman, too. “He really did it to us again.”

Emerson didn’t hold back his bitterness at the way the show’s closing was handled in 2009. But he struck an unlikely alliance with Aleman again last year, when the producer let him use the “La Cage” name at – and only at – the Four Queens.

I saw the resulting product. Let’s just say it seemed like it was time to reinvent the Vegas drag show in something other than this dusty iteration.

But Emerson hadn’t given up hope when he says Aleman announced “he was taking his show back,” and “back we go to the Riviera.”

Emerson and Aleman dispute who was in charge at that point. Aleman says he never intended to take the financial risk, but the Riviera wanted him onboard.

The 70-year-old producer says the business has changed, as well as society itself. When the first show opened, “gay people were not accepted into society and (drag) was taboo.” But the curiosity is gone, he says.

Aleman says Emerson is a talent, but “unfortunately he arrived 10 years late.”

Emerson and Marino disagree. They vow to keep drag alive in Las Vegas and beyond, with plans to send the Riviera cast out to other casino markets.

Under a different name, “La Cage” is back – in the title of “La Cage Aux Folles,” the Broadway hit based on the movie that started it all, due at The Smith Center Aug. 14.

A better place for it, I would say.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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