January 26, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Laughs a la ‘La Cage’

‘La Cage aux Folles’
Through Feb. 12
The Kennedy Center
$65 and up
202-467-4600
kennedy-center.org

George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber, center, in ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ playing now at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Paul Kolnik; courtesy Kennedy Center)

Sometimes smaller is better. Case in point: Terry Johnson’s Tony Award-winning revival of “La Cage aux Folles” now at the Kennedy Center. The Broadway director’s scaled-down take on the feel-good musical is a charmer. Far more enjoyable than previous, more lavishly produced versions.

Before the show begins, a sassy drag queen wearing a pastel suit and pillbox hat (a salute to first ladies of yesteryear) takes a seat on the edge of the stage and warms up the crowd. She jokes with those filing in, asking about birthdays and anniversaries. She advises the buttoned-up folks in the crowd to relax, then inquires if there are any Indian, black, or Jewish lesbians in the house. After her, the audience is ready for anything.

With a hummable score by Jerry Herman (gay) and big-hearted book by Harvey Fierstein (also gay),” La Cage” is an old fashioned musical about family. Georges (George Hamilton) owns a drag club on the Riviera where his longtime partner Albin (Christopher Sieber) performs as Zaza. Together they’ve raised Jean-Michel (Billy Harrigan Tighe), Georges’ son from a long ago night of experimentation with a less-than-maternal playmate. The action kicks off when their son unexpectedly returns home for a visit, followed soon after by his new fiancée and her right-wing politician father and cowed mother. Needless to say, much zaniness, hurt feelings, anger and sentiment ensues.

Sieber’s Zaza is a big-boned, glittery diva (looks like Tyne Daly rolled in sequins) who works the room (in this case the Eisenhower Theater) like a pro. Her old school act references Marilyn and Marlene. But Lynne Page’s incredible, acrobatic choreography is left to Zaza’s back-ups, the lovely Cagelles (Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell and Trevor Downey). However, make no mistake, despite the sexy showgirl getups (compliments of costume designer Matthew Wright) not one of these muscular chorus boys could be mistaken for a real lady. But that’s part of the fun. Johnson’s reimagined dancers are vastly more entertaining than the much longer, mixed kick line of biologically female chorines and passable lovelies seen in past productions.

Set designer Tim Shortall cleverly sets the scene with a palm-decorated, scallop-topped proscenium. His stage within a stage quickly transforms into Georges and Albin’s over-decorated flat above the club in which the backstage story plays out.

Buzz surrounding the national tour suggested that 72-year-old movie actor and jetsetter George Hamilton was a big disappointment as Georges. In fact, he’s quite endearing in the role of the indulgent father and loving spouse. With his fabled suntan and signature insouciance, he certainly fits the part of a San Tropez club owner. And while he isn’t much of a dancer, his singing isn’t bad.

As high maintenance-but-lovable Albin, Broadway musical veteran Siebert s is simply terrific. He’s a powerhouse performer who plumbs the part for big laughs but can also dial down his performance when needed. But Sieber is at his best when Albin’s personal life spills into alter ego Zaza’s drag act and he belts Herman’s gay anthem “I Am What I am” with heartfelt power.

Adapted from the same-titled French play, “La Cage Aux Folles” was a little racy when it premiered on Broadway in 1983. Whatever shock value the show once had is gone. Same-sex parents are a nightly news and sitcom staple. Still, the creaky plot cranks out laughs and its messages of self- acceptance and the importance of family whatever its composition still resound strongly.

 

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