La Cage aux Folles on Broadway in 1983 was the first mainstream gay musical, as well as a landmark fusion of love story, show tunes, drag queens and feather boas. Aids was getting a grip, so writers Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (libretto) decided to sugar the bad news pill with a big blast of gay men having fun for all the family.
Was this double-edged quality the result of show-business pragmatism or a calculated sell-out? The musical manages to have it both ways, so to speak, and that is its triumph as well as its main flaw. But this fantastic revival, first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this year and now happily ensconced at the theatre nobody knows about on the Embankment, fully restores a great show as a bittersweet social classic.
The beautifully wrought songs of devotion between drag queen Albin (Douglas Hodge) and his partner, nightclub owner Georges (Denis Lawson), are counterpointed with the raucous anthems of Albin – "I Am What I Am" is that boil-over moment when you must stand up and be counted – and the pacified relatives in the jauntily rhythmic and insinuating "The Best of Times".
Terry Johnson's production evokes the sleaze and intimacy of the St-Tropez nightclub, but Lynn Page's choreography is anything but tacky: the sextet of all-male "Cagelles" erupt like a bubble-haired chorus in Anything Goes, punting huge beach-balls into the stalls and saluting frenziedly as the weaponry is fully erected round the large funnel on the poop deck.
And at "show time" they return as the exotic bird creatures of the eponymous cage, backed up by a windmill draped in scalloped pink curtains (it's the Moulin Rose), to raise the roof in their elaborate cancan of bicycle kicks and eye-watering jumps and splits. These performers, and Hodge, create an atmosphere of self-immolation in performance that gives the show its electrifying theatricality.
As in the delightful French film of 1978 on which it is based (remade with limited success by Robin Williams in 1996 as The Birdcage), the crisis in the central relationship is triggered by Georges's biological son, raised in his male "marriage" with Albin, announcing his engagement to the daughter of a reactionary politician whose mission is to clean up the Riviera. Cue fluttering of eyelashes and antimacassars as Georges, played with a stylish, dry and witty insouciance by Lawson, tries to convince Albin that he should lie low as "Uncle Al". He tutors him in how to move like a man – "pick up that piece of toast like John Wayne" – while Hodge trades his onstage regalia of Kathy Kirby-style furs and fuchsia for a Harold Pinter look of black suit and black moods (with just a hint of glitter).
Good old French farce follows with flying saucers of canapés, a lot of eye-popping and the tireless interventions of Jason Pennycooke's queeny French "maid". Hodge is aghast, but each slight on his dignity only fuels his virtuoso display of outraged resilience, until he climactically rips off his wig ("Merde!") in the restaurant and comes out of his closet just one more time.
Herman's rich, melodic score has been brilliantly adapted by Jason Carr for a small band, nestled in the upper stage boxes. The design by Tim Shortall (set) and Matthew Wright (costumes) is a riot of colourful bad taste in an intimately scaled re-appropriation of one of the best of all well-crafted Broadway shows.
New to the cast are the tart and decisive Tracie Bennett as the restaurateur, Paula Wilcox as the politician's pouting wife, and Stuart Neal, very much in the young Matthew Broderick mould, as the object of heterosexual desire; as a shocked Albin says, wringing his hands (and Georges's neck) on the sofa: "Our baby's getting married; where did we go wrong?"
The Menier producers David Babani and Tom Siracusa did a similarly inspired job on Stephen Sondheim's exactly contemporary Sunday in the Park with George, and there's no reason to suppose that this creative revalidation shouldn't enjoy the same success, and even return to its New York place of origin with all feathers flying.
To 10 January (0870 060 6631; www.lacagelondon.com )