Though this sophisticated story was intended for equally sophisticated adults as part of the mores and manners of a society and culture gone with the wind, the stylish and colorful Broadway revival has solved all these problems with Heidi (Call the Midwife, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs) Thomas’ new adaptation of the Alan Jay Lerner book and the casting of Disney heroine Vanessa Hudgens in the title role. Gigi is now over 18 and Gaston is in his 20’s, which puts a decidedly different complexion on things. “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is now sung by Gigi’s grandmother Mamita and her Aunt Alicia. All decidedly right and proper and the word courtesan (which is what this is about) is never once mentioned. Sex is never even an issue. Here love is simply a game. So what are we left with?
The original story still remains as do all the songs from the film. Gigi, a high-spirted young girl grows up as the third generation in a family of courtesans where she is being taught by her Aunt Alicia the arts of grooming, etiquette and table manners in order to make her more marketable. As Aunt Alicia puts it, “Marriage is not forbidden to us! Instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happen that’s we get married at last.”
However, Gigi isn’t much interested in love or jewels and ponders over all the fuss that Parisians place on these things. What she enjoys most are the visits of Gaston, nicknamed the “Sugar Prince,” and the most eligible bachelor in town. Even her Grandmother, Madame Alvarez, who is bringing her up while her off-stage mother is on tour with the opera, is fascinated by his love affairs and adventures as reported by the Paris scandal sheets.
But then, as inevitably happens, Gigi grows up and turns into a beautiful and poised young woman just as Gaston’s latest liaison with Liane d’Exelmans comes to an end at a very public party at Maxim’s. Aunt Alicia sees an opportunity for Gigi to be launched. But is Gigi interested in this life or has she learned too much about the detriments of such a liaison? Just as in the film, the story is narrated by Gaston’s uncle, the perennial bachelor Honore Lachaille, who it turns out knew Gigi’s grandmother many years ago when they both were young.
One of the reasons the 1973 stage premiere didn’t work is that everyone was played as British which was decidedly unconvincing in this French setting. In Eric Schaeffer’s new production now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre after a run at the Kennedy Center earlier this year, everyone is wholesomely American in this attractive cast. Hudgens, the star of the Disney High School Musicals 1, 2 and 3, is a perky vivacious high-spirited adolescent, the girl next door. While she is fine at what she is doing, there is little nuance or subtlety. As Gaston, Cott is more of a college fraternity boy on his vacation than a man about town, which is more acceptable to American sensibility. While Howard McGillin, long time Broadway musical leading man, is blandly suave as Honore who “…Remembers It Well,” he misses the charm that Maurice Chevalier brought to the role in the film.
The production is more successful in the casting of the women. In the sort of motherly role she has played in Light in the Piazza, Cinderella and Encores! revival of Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, Tony winner Victoria Clark is utterly delightful as Gigi’s grandmother, always making her lines suggest more than she actually says. Dee Hoty is properly imperious as the perfectly coiffed and perfectly dressed Aunt Alicia. though at times she comes across as more affected than necessary. Statuesque Steffanie Leigh captures the steel behind Parisian courtesan Liane d’Exelmans who knows exactly what she is after even if she pretends it is love. The singing and dancing ensemble in this cast of 20 is fine except in the crowd scenes like at Maxim’s and at Trouville where the stage never looks filled up.
The original lush and witty score by Lerner and Loewe has been restored with the inclusion of “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” now sung by Mamita, as “Say A Prayer for Her Tonight,” either to avoid bringing in an additional bedroom set or so we do not hear Gigi’s fears the night before her first date with Gaston. Such songs as “It’s A Bore,” “She Is Not Thinking of Me,” “The Night They Invented Champagne,” “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” as well as the Academy Award-winning title song are as fresh as ever, though as directed by Schaeffer they don’t seem to have as much subtext as they formerly did. Aside from the clever and witty “The Contract,” which helped win Gigi its Tony Award for Best Score in 1974, other additional songs included from that production (“Paris Is Paris Again,” “I Never Want to Go Home Anymore,” and “In this Wide, Wide World”) are inferior to the best lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography to the lush music of Frederick Loewe is generic and serviceable, rather than memorable and distinctive.
However, this Gigi looks glamorous which is desirable for the 1900 la Belle Époque milieu. Constance Zuber’s gowns are a veritable costume parade in pinks and baby blues, lavenders, purples and reds. This was after all the end of the so-called “Mauve Decade.” Gigi’s colors mature from a kind of blue and white sailor suit, to red, purple, and then finally to virginal white. So too, Natasha Katz’s lighting is drenched in a color palette of blue and purple skyscapes intended to take your breath away. The unit set of Derek McLane is problematic as the art nouveau metal staircase that remains on stage throughout the evening (even in the indoor scenes such as Mamita and Aunt Alicia’s apartments) is often intrusive. Is it the underside of the Eiffel Tower? No, it can’t be as now there is the Eiffel Tower in the distance. It works best for the scenes in Maxim’s and the beach at Trouville where it is brought into the action. The sound design by Kai Harada is a pleasure for Lerner’s lyrics, rather tinny for Loewe’s melodies.
Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi in its first New York revival has become sanitized family entertainment: “Meet Me in St. Louis” goes to Paris. However, Colette’s story and characters and Lerner and Loewe’s beloved songs are still there, just scrubbed clean. This attractive-looking and gleaming production appears to be targeted at teenage girls in Gigi’s age group just like Legally Blonde and Wicked. Let’s hope it finds its audience. It is still a delicious bonbon of Gallic wit.
Gigi ( through June 21, 2015)
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.gigionbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission