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Theater Review: “La Cage aux Folles” at the Kennedy Center

George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber star in this deeply funny, unabashedly heartfelt musical.

George Hamilton as Georges in La Cage aux Folles. Photograph by Paul Kolnik.

In an election season where we’re constantly being told how wrong, shameful, and threatening to the moral fabric of America homosexuality is, it’s utterly cheering to see in La Cage aux Folles what might be the most endearing non-nuclear family in popular culture (at least until Modern Family premiered). Given that La Cage debuted on Broadway in 1983, it might be less groundbreaking now than it once was, but, as Terry Johnson’s production proves, it’s no less inspiring.

Positive affirmations aside, the touring production of La Cage (a continuation of the Tony-sweeping 2010 Broadway revival) currently playing at the Kennedy Center is completely delightful—preposterously hammy and glitzy, but so warmhearted it’s hard to fault. George Hamilton (read our interview with him), the perma-tanned smoothie known for such B-movie classics as Love at First Bite and Zorro the Gay Blade, gets top billing here, but he willingly plays second fiddle to Christopher Sieber, whose multilayered performance as Albin (and Albin’s drag alter ego, Zaza) is quite exceptional. Shedding feathers across the stage like a giant, flustered marabou, Sieber struts and croons his way through the show with irrepressible appeal.

The show’s plot might be fairly silly, but it’s redeemed by the cast’s tongue-in-cheek conviction. Georges (Hamilton, resplendent in a red velvet smoking jacket) is the owner of La Cage aux Folles, a Saint Tropez nightclub featuring a cast of gorgeous, temperamental drag entertainers. Albin, as Zaza, is his biggest star, but the pair are also partners, and co-parents of Jean-Michel, Georges’s son from a confused tryst several decades earlier. Jean-Michel (Billy Harrigan Tighe)—who, to the overwhelming disappointment of his parents, is as straight as a ruler—announces his intention to marry Anne (Allison Blair McDowell), the daughter of a pompous French moralist running for office under the banner of the “tradition, family, and morality” party. (Sound familiar?) Which means when Jean-Michael brings Anne’s family to meet his parents, Albin is more than an inconvenient truth—he’s a presence Jean-Michel wants to hide altogether.

Sieber’s heartbreak as his adopted son rejects him is hard to watch. Shell-shocked, he wanders onstage for his big number, before breaking down and ushering the “Cagelles” away. But gradually he starts to sing the number, “I Am What I Am,” transforming from a wounded victim to a truly divine presence. “It’s my world that I wanna have a little pride in,” Zaza sings. “My world, and it’s not a place I want to have to hide in.” As for Hamilton, he’s no great singer, but his irresistible charm shines through nonetheless, and his chemistry with Sieber is surprisingly gratifying.

During the first act, when the Cagelles high-kick and trill their way through some impressive numbers, Crazy Horse–style, Hamilton’s role as the emcee seems understated, but when things take a more farcical turn in the meet-the-parents action of the second act, he’s a much stronger presence. Inevitably, Jean-Michel’s plan to present his father as a strait-laced former diplomat hits some snags when the pompous Monsieur Dindon (Bruce Winant) arrives. His attitude toward morality is summed up by Jean-Michel thusly: “He’s so busy lecturing the world on their families, he doesn’t have time to tend to his own.” (Again, sound familiar?)

For a show that must once have been reasonably scandalous, the sweet, heartwarming appeal of La Cage is unexpected, but it’s only one aspect of a truly dazzling production. The sets by Tim Shortall are detailed and effective, from the cobbled walls of a sidewalk cafe to the flashy glamour of Georges and Albin’s home. The Cagelles’ high kicks, meanwhile, could put the Rockettes to shame. But it’s the humor of La Cage that carries it, combined with a dogged commitment to not taking itself too seriously. “You’re looking a little ashen,” Albin tells Georges at one point, poking gentle fun at Hamilton’s glorious (and infamous) tan. “We all have something to learn from Zaza,” Georges tells his son in a later scene, and it’s hard to think that truer words were ever spoken.

La Cage aux Folles is at the Kennedy Center through February 12. Tickets ($65 to $130) are available thorugh the KenCen’s website.