In theory, there is no interesting justification for another revival of "La Cage aux Folles," the 1983 musical adaptation of the 1978 French family-values transvestite film that, from the start, was as threatening as "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in bugle beads.
After a weary revival in 2004 (not to mention two French sequels and Hollywood's version, "The Birdcage"), it seemed inevitable that, to paraphrase Jerry Herman's oft-repeated anthem, this would be what it is, and that is what it has always been: a manipulative, middle-of-the-road, sentimental old formula updated by gender politics in drag.
So much for theory. The revival, starring an endearing Kelsey Grammer and the astonishing Douglas Hodge in an import from London's influential little Menier Chocolate Factory, is one of the happy surprises of the season. The show still is what it is, of course, which means running gags from Harvey Fierstein's big-hearted book and shameless reprises of Herman's upbeat tunes.
In other words, the corn is still as high as an elephant's feather boa in the St. Tropez transvestite cabaret owned by an aging male couple named Georges (Grammer) and Albin (Hodge). But the difference starts with director Terry Johnson's intimate but not skimpy production, which makes this a delightfully tacky club. Instead of the male chorus of Cagelles that meant to wow Broadway by their ability to look female, these guys play big-muscle thug-femmes who relish the blatant incongruities in their ballet moves and pumped-up gymnastics.
Grammer plays the self-described "plain" homosexual with the debonair bluff of Frasier, the dry double-takes of Jack Benny, and a rooster hairpiece of touchingly-indeterminate amber. He doesn't sing beautifully, but he does hit the notes. Charm does the rest.
The discovery, at least to this country, is Hodge, the British actor who finds layers of nuance as Albin, aging butterfly-stage name Zaza, forced by circumstances to imitate a butch uncle and a kindly matronly mother. The disguises are necessary to fool the parents of Georges' adored grown son, who wants to marry the daughter of the leader of the Morality Party. Hilarious chaos, allegedly, ensues.
Robin De Jesus, the butler, is annoying as a Rosie Perez imitator. Veanne Co is underutilized as the prospective mother-in-law. In Menier style, the orchestra is reduced to almost nothing. Given the context, it seems less a crime than a decision.