If you think you remember “Gigi” well, a newly buffed revival wants you to have some freshened perspective on the Oscar-winning 1958 film musical, later turned into a stage version by its creators, the “My Fair Lady” team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Oh, Paris remains glisteningly romantic at the Kennedy Center, in director Eric Schaeffer’s luxe, $12 million production, and the effervescent score still radiates Gallic charm. Other things have, well, evolved in the Paris of 1900, as adapted from Colette’s novella. Gigi, in the guise of “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens, has more backbone, and a sharpened awareness of the limits imposed on women of the period. And some of what might be looked at askance by modern audiences, such as the aging roué’s delivery of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” has been reconsidered. Now it’s an older generation of women singing appreciatively about how “little girls get bigger every day.”
All in all, this Broadway-bound revival, with a majorly tweaked new book by British playwright Heidi Thomas, is well thought out and well handled, especially courtesy of a runway’s worth of sumptuous evening gowns by Catherine Zuber, and the elegant choreography by Joshua Bergasse. But the production, which had its official opening Thursday night, is also a reminder that “Gigi” is not a great musical, nothing really special. It’s forever very okay — no matter how much the song assignments and gender politics are fiddled with. Its status as a lesser “My Fair Lady” has been remarked on, accurately, many times before.
For me, the love story at its core, between the gamine Gigi (now 18 rather than 16) and the musical’s younger rake Gaston (originally in his mid-30s and now in Corey Cott’s personification in his mid-20s) lacks the dynamism required for an evening’s full propulsion. The plot essentially revolves around Gaston’s very slow realization that his feelings for the blossoming Gigi run deep and, under her beguiling, unwitting tutelage, sees her ultimately not as a prize but as a partner. Neither original book writer Lerner nor adapter Thomas finds a satisfying way of making this feel like an epic match; the musical relies too much on our reflexive wish for a happy ending and too little on why our hope should be that Gigi ends up with this rich guy.
Hudgens has the unenviable task of competing with a specific memory, that of Leslie Caron’s uncanny film performance, a key to the film’s luster, along with Maurice Chevalier’s turn, brimming with eternal sunshine, as aging bon vivant Honore. (Howard McGillin plays him here, to cozy rather than incandescent effect.) Hudgens brandishes only one tool, an unsuppressed giggle, for most of Act 1; cuteness, alas, is pretty much all the first 75 minutes of the show ask of her. She’s much more convincing in the altogether stronger Act 2, after her rather abrupt transformation from child into woman. Here Zuber dresses her the way Cecil Beaton would Audrey Hepburn, in shimmering white with black finishes, and she’s permitted to show some becoming spark.
Her voice is sweet and light, though a little over-enunciated, and a counterpoint to Cott’s clarion vibrato. Her best song is a quiet one, “The Letter,” one of the half-dozen numbers Lerner and Loewe added after the movie musical, when they tried to turn it into a stage show. She and the solid Cott do nicely, too, by their added duet, “In This Wide, Wide World.”
The vocal honors, however, go to the excellent Victoria Clark, playing Gigi’s grandmother and caretaker, Mamita, a role that is more crucially entwined in the evening’s signature melodies. Mamita and Honore still banter their way through the wry “I Remember It Well,” but it’s now Mamita and her sister, Alicia (terrific Dee Hoty), a materially comforted courtesan in her dotage, who sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” This is one of the concessions to a belief that there’s more than a whiff of the seamy, or worse, in a musical that depicts a young girl being readied for market, if you will, as a kept consort to a wealthy man.
Come to think of it, why are so many well-known Golden Age musicals — “Gigi,” “Gypsy,” “My Fair Lady” — concerned with “remaking” impressionable young women so that they’re more appealing to men? It’s a reductive way of thinking about these admired shows, I’ll admit. Still, I also have to confess that as with “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” I’m especially curious how my 20-something daughter would react to this one.
Thomas, creator of the BBC series “Call the Midwife,” has made useful adjustments to plot and character to try to round out “Gigi.” A crucial one occurs in Act 2, after the scene in which Gaston takes resplendent Gigi to the hot spot Maxim’s. Gigi’s determination to be her own person is newly underlined; it’s she, not Gaston, who now sets the rules for their ever-after. “I could never be happy if I couldn’t be myself,” she declares. The three principal female characters now exist on a continuum of enlightenment: on the extremes, Alicia is a total throwback, and Gigi a harbinger of a new level of understanding of a woman’s sense of self. In the middle is Mamita, uncomfortable with Alicia’s old prescriptions but anxious about how Gigi will otherwise be able to make her way in the world.
Some of the show’s other songs have been assigned to new characters: Mamita, for instance, now sings “Say a Prayer,” sung by Gigi in the film as “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” A less successful alteration has been made to the lovely “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” performed as a solo by Chevalier to bittersweet perfection. Here, it’s turned into a broader, comic duet for McGillin and Clark, and it’s all wrong in conception and movement — it comes across as an unintended knockoff of Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa dancing “Timeless to Me” in “Hairspray.”
The visual splendor of director Vincente Minnelli’s movie is ably reflected in set designer Derek McLane’s glorious iron-lattice architectural exteriors and warmly draped interiors. And Loewe’s melodies swell grandly under the music direction of James Moore and a 13-member orchestra.
Schaeffer’s vision here is a suitably warm one, too. I suspect that fans of the movie will again find moments to ooh and aah, even if “Gigi” will make only the exceptionally devoted go “ooh la la.”
“Gigi,” book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreography, Joshua Bergasse; sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Catherine Zuber; music direction, James Moore; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Kai Harada; orchestrations, August Eriksmoen. With Steffanie Leigh, Justin Prescott. About 2