The party starts early at the vivacious and endearing revival of “La Cage aux Folles.” An impossibly leggy actor in drag is waiting at the lip of the stage as the audience files into the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater — and woe to the stragglers who incur her wrath.
“Did your tickets say 7:30-ish?” she asks in mock outrage, as her targets squeeze into their seats, chortling. Yes, this touring “La Cage,” a close replica of the Tony-winning production that ended a year-long Broadway run in May, features its own warmup act. And on an evening of sweet, though slightly antique, gay musical comedy, this is merely where the warmth — peppered with a dash of mischief — begins.
Because Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton, who play a lovingly bickering (un)married couple headlining and running a risque Riviera nightclub, form an appealing comic union. Their surprisingly good chemistry serves as an efficient pacemaker for the heart of this 1983 musical, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Jerry Herman filled with what have become wedding and cabaret standards, songs such as “The Best of Times” and “I Am What I Am.”
As dashing major-domo Georges, the 72-year-old Hamilton — with full silver mane and blinding smile — manages to shelve for the occasion the self-regarding rake of old and to portray with charm and dignity the cooler-headed half of a gay couple. He gets through the dancing sequences with gritted teeth, but he does agreeably carry a tune. And if ever a Saint-Tropez perma-tan was going to work on a stage for Hamilton, it would be in a musical set in Saint-Tropez.
Sieber has the requisite big presence for Albin, an old-line drag star with Joan Crawford’s flaring nostrils and James Earl Jones’s bass register. Albin’s glittery alter ego, Zaza, is wrapped in a half-acre of fur as she sings the title song, backed by the six athletic men in mascara and sequins who make up the astounding Cagelles: Matt Anctil, Logan Keslar, Donald C. Shorter Jr., Mark Roland, Terry Lavell and Trevor Downey. They’ve got the verve and entertainment wattage of a chorus line three times their size.
And yet, it’s neither as Albin nor as Zaza that Sieber creates his most electric moment. It’s as a fusion of the two that he accomplishes this, in the number that finishes Act 1, “I Am What I Am,” the song that best identifies the defiance and restlessness simmering in the musical’s comic soul.
The watchword for the evening, muscularly assembled by director Terry Johnson and his sterling choreographer, Lynne Page, is acceptance. “La Cage” — based on a French play that spawned French and American movie versions — uses a conventional Broadway form to show us how loving an unconventional family can be. (Remember that the pedigree is the early ’80s.)
Propelled by Herman’s gangbusters tunefulness and Fierstein’s bravura sentimentality, the musical tends to go all mushy, especially in the handling of Albin’s rejection by the boy he and Georges raised, Jean-Michel (Billy Harrigan Tighe) on the day Jean-Michel is bringing home for the first time his fiancee (Allison Blair McDowell), her timid mother (Cathy Newman) and homophobic-politician father (Bruce Winant). On the way to the musical’s gleefully farcical conclusion, we wade through Georges’s guilt-inducing “Look Over There,” a lugubrious paean to Albin’s sacrifices on Jean-Michel’s behalf.
If this interlude comes across as patronizing, there are some bona fide lump-in-the-throat moments, courtesy of Sieber and the authentic emotional dive Albin takes after the champagne bubble of his maternal role in the household is initially burst, and Jean-Michel says he doesn’t want Albin at the dinner with his fiancee and her parents. Hamilton’s lightness of being is an aid here, as he winningly conveys the notion of a man attempting to juggle the loyalties in his life — Jean-Michel is his biological son, the result of a one-night stand — while maintaining a sense of Gallic bonhomie.
The dance sequences at La Cage are surefire, particularly a number in which the Cagelles perform undulating acrobatics on the bars of their massive birdcage. Though Tim Shortall’s sets do workmanlike service, Matthew Wright’s costumes, particularly for Zaza, are a delightfully hyperdramatic leap up from that. And thanks to the sound design of Jonathan Deans and music direction of Joey Chancey, the voices are crisply balanced with the sound of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. The show’s technical solidity reinforces a perception that the Eisenhower is a far better fit for musicals than the Opera House.
And the overall fitness of this touring version reinforces “La Cage’s” place in musical theater as a melodic homage to families of all stripes. After a couple of hours at home with Sieber and Hamilton, one can’t help but feel that they’re, well, kind of made for each other.
music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Terry Johnson. Choreography, Lynne Page; orchestrations, Jason Carr; lighting, Nick Richings; sound, Jonathan Deans; wigs and makeup, Richard Mawbey. With Gay Marshall, Dale Hensley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Feb. 12 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.