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No film musical had ever before been transferred to Broadway until Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted their 1958 Oscar-winner in 1973, retaining seven of the original songs and adding four others. Director David Lee has shrewdly sought out and interpolated Lerner’s continuing rewrites from a 1985 West End mounting which more effectively create a genuine stage-piece rather than an imitation of a movie. In so doing, the acrid misogyny of Lerner’s sensibility comes through more transparently, without the saving grace of the veneer of charm and romance applied by director Vincente Minnelli, producer Arthur Freed and designer Cecil Beaton to their adaptation of Colette‘s story about the training of a young courtesan.
At this remove, and in the exposing experience of live performance, Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi appears ever more transparently a strikingly less realized variation on their masterwork, My Fair Lady. While Lerner had found sympathetic source material in shanghaiing Shaw, his own sour view of relations between the sexes does not rest so comfortably with appropriating Colette, whose realism is far more distinctive and original than Lerner’s cynicism. The Loewe melodies are often extraordinary, if derivative of his own work, and Lerner’s wit occasionally pierces but never sparkles despite its insistence that it is doing just that. The best sequence, appropriately, is one created for Broadway, “The Contract,” an extended, shrill, and skin-crawling negotiation for Gigi’s services.
Reprise’s production style (bare suggestions of sets, limited choreography) may actually suit the material rather better than a fuller mounting, which would only have exaggerated the intrinsic vulgarity of the material. Everything is consistently executed with great professionalism. William Atherton brings brio to the old Maurice Chevalier role, although his roue’ tends more toward the sniggery than the sophisticated. Matt Cavenaugh plays playboy Gaston as an annoying pill, perhaps a choice more accurate than affecting. In the title role, Lisa O’Hare is in excellent voice and has a way with the lyrics, though she seems more the trollop than the innocent.
It is a true treat to see and hear Millicent Martin as the grandmother (the performer’s musical theater career dates back to the London premiere of South Pacific, in which she appeared in the chorus together with Sean Connery), and Susan Denaker‘s Aunt Alicia, who tutors Gigi in the ways of the woman of the world, dominates every scene in which she appears; this is certainly a character around whom an entire musical could be built. The redoubtable Jason Graae delighted the opening night audience with his comedy stylings in seven roles.
If an enterprising company wants to revive lost Lerner, a strong suggestion would be Lolita, My Love, scored by John Barry, which closed out of town in 1971 and genuinely suits Lerner’s vision, or the Kurt Weill-scored Lush Life. Or the Gigi of Anita Loos’ 1951 play, which starred Audrey Hepburn before the movies found her (and ran twice as long as this 1973 version), or perhaps even a timely new adaptation of Colette by a contemporary playwright.
Venue: Reprise, Freud Playhouse, UCLA (runs through February 27)
Presented by Reprise Theater Company: Jason Alexander, Artistic Director; Christine Bernardi Weil, Managing Director; Gilles Chiasson, Producing Director
Cast: William Atherton, Matt Cavenaugh, Lisa O’Hare, Millicent Martin, Susan Denaker, Jason Graae, Chryssie Whitehead
Music: Frederick Loewe
Lyrics and book: Alan Jay Lerner, based on the 1944 novel by Colette
Director: David Lee
Musical director: Steve Orich
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
Scenic designer: Tom Buderwitz
Costume designer: Kate Bergh
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
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