'Gigi': Theater Review

Lukewarm champagne

Vanessa Hudgens goes gamine in her Broadway debut as the title character in the Lerner and Loewe musical about a Parisian tomboy's path to love and womanhood.

Given her famously ambivalent acquaintanceship with Coco Chanel, it seems possible that novelist Colette might be rolling her eyes, if not quite rolling over in her grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, upon discovering that double-G T-shirts mimicking the interlocking-C Chanel logo are being sold at the merchandise stand for Gigi. That crass marketing invention notwithstanding, a lazy eye roll is about the most extreme reaction likely to be provoked by this pretty but charm-deficient revival of the Lerner and Loewe musical, which plants an all-American, too-contemporary Vanessa Hudgens in a wanly unatmospheric Belle Epoque Paris.

Based on the 1944 novella by Colette, Gigi was first adapted as a 1949 French film,  then a 1951 Broadway play by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author Anita Loos, starring a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn in the title role. But the literary property found its most enduring form in the 1958 Vincente Minnelli film starring the incandescent Leslie Caron that collected nine Oscars and became regarded as the glorious swan song of the opulent MGM movie-musical era.

Screenwriter and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe had written Gigi on the heels of their 1956 monster hit, My Fair Lady. And while the transporting elegance, the romantic settings and Minnelli's sumptuous craftsmanship elevated the material on the screen, as a musical, it's an inferior, French-flavored imitation of its predecessor in the Lerner and Loewe canon. That comparison is even more apparent onstage, where the composing team first adapted the show in a critically and commercially disappointing 1973 Broadway run.

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British television dramatist Heidi Thomas, whose English period pieces have spanned the 1840s (Cranford) through the 1930s (Upstairs Downstairs) to the '50s and '60s (Call the Midwife), treads carefully while reworking the material yet again to suit more modern tastes. That involves aging the title character up from 15 to 18; readjusting her wealthy beau Gaston from 40ish to mid-20s; and underlining Gigi's proto-feminist refusal to be treated as a commodity by having her life mapped out for her. In another key change, the pervy serenade, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," has been rescued from twinkly-eyed roue Honore (Maurice Chevalier in the movie) and given instead to Gigi's grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Victoria Clark), and her great-aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty), who has taken charge of molding her into a presentable demimondaine.

Thomas downplays the issue of Gigi being trained to continue the family tradition by becoming a high-class courtesan, like the celebrated Alicia and the more modest Mamita, as Gigi calls her grandmother, who nonetheless had her admirers. Among her more ardent suitors was Honore Lachaille (Howard McGillin), an old flame that still flickers. Honore’s millionaire nephew, Gaston (Corey Cott), is more of a science nerd than an inveterate playboy like his uncle. However, he dutifully keeps up appearances in the gossip pages with glamour girls at nightspots like Maxim's though perhaps prefers his relaxed afternoon visits at the home of family friend Mme. Alvarez, where he treats Gigi like a kid sister.

While the central love story takes both Gaston and Gigi by surprise, coolly pragmatic Aunt Alicia is prepared, marshaling a team of lawyers to ensure that her great-niece's material comforts have a durability that outlasts any relationship. But Gigi balks at becoming a kept woman, forcing Gaston to reconsider their union in a different light.

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The transactional nature of love in a period when women had few options to secure their future is an interesting subject, encapsulated by the marvelously haughty Hoty in such gold-digger maxims as "Men are temporary, jewels are for life." However, by removing almost any doubt that Gigi's fate ultimately will rest in her own hands, Thomas dulls what's most distinctive about the story, turning it into a conventional romance between a bland couple of compatible age range, interrupted by an awkward contractual negotiation.

Watching this rather mechanical reworking of Gigi, the suspicion arises that its weaknesses lie not only in the treatment but in the material itself, which is full of dreary patter songs that echo those from My Fair Lady but have minimal impact. Numbers like "I Remember It Well" and "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" scrape by on residual affection for the movie and on the ineffable class of veteran performers Clark and McGillin.

But the show soars only intermittently toward the end, notably when Cott (a mini-Hugh Jackman) sings a gorgeous version of the stirring title song and when Hudgens finally shifts beyond one-note youthful perkiness to display some romantic feeling. Both actors are perfectly sweet and vocally very capable, even if they have nary a whiff of old-world Europe. But the characters never come alive with even half the passion that Clark invests in "Say a Prayer," in which Mamita expresses her love and concern for her granddaughter. (Originally written for Eliza in My Fair Lady and titled "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," the song was sung by Gigi in previous versions.)

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The production's design elements are quite lovely. A grand staircase dominates Derek McLane's set, surrounded by swirls of art nouveau wrought iron that evoke the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower. Artworks and wall fixtures suspended in air denote Mamita's apartment, and the stylized trees in the Bois de Boulogne cleverly replicate the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps. Costumer Catherine Zuber delivers her usual soigne period chic (tipping her picture hat to Cecil Beaton's designs for the movie); and Natasha Katz's lighting is luscious, particularly the liquid red velvet she pours over the Maxim's scenes.

But director Eric Schaeffer and choreographer Joshua Bergasse nonetheless fail to conjure the excitement and glamour of high-society fin-de-siecle Paris. The show has an underpopulated feel; five twirling couples don't quite make a ball. And the frequent dance motif of swells parading in their finery gets repetitive. (Think "Ascot Gavotte" from My Fair Lady meets the rigid "Aloof" intro from Bob Fosse's "Rich Man's Frug" number in Sweet Charity.) Even in the rowdy first-act closer, "The Night They Invented Champagne," the energy is strained, and the ho-hum can-can girls are less boisterous than the men's chorus, with their Michael Kidd-style athleticism. It's a number built to pop, but like just about everything else, it lacks fizz.

Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Victoria Clark, Corey Cott, Dee Hoty, Howard McGillin, Stephanie Leigh, Cameron Adams, Max Clayton, Madeleine Doherty, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Hannah Florence, Brian Ogilvie, James Patterson, Justin Prescott, Manny Stark, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Amos Wolff, Ashley Yeater

Director: Eric Schaeffer

Music: Frederick Loewe

Book and lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner, based on the novel by Colette

Adaptation: Heidi Thomas

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: Catherine Zuber

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Sound designer: Kai Harada

Choreographer: Joshua Bergasse

Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen

Music direction: Greg Jarrett

Music supervision: James Moore

Presented by Jenna Segal, Segal NYC Productions, Ilya Mikhailovic Productions, Eion and Mia Hu, Darren P. Deverna/Jeremiah J. Harris, Merrie L. Davis, Martin Markinson, Lawrence S. Toppall/Riki Kane Larimer/Pat Flicker Addiss

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