Prudish American audiences can relax. There’s nothing to offend their tender sensibilities in this antiseptic version of “Gigi,” Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting 1958 film musical about a young girl being groomed as a courtesan in Belle Epoque Paris. The racy suggestion (in the original Colette novella) that the clever girl might be complicit in her own education had already been expunged in previous stage and film versions. But Heidi Thomas’ adaptation delivers the coup de grace by aging 15-year-old Gigi up to a mature 18 and by casting Little-Miss-Perky Vanessa Hudgens in the sanitized role.
Rather than empowering Gigi, putting more years on her makes this young adult seem dimwitted instead of innocently naive. In the same blundering way, drastically dropping the age of her jaded older suitor incongruously forces the boyish Corey Cott (“Newsies”) into the unconvincing guise of that sophisticated boulevardier Gaston Lachaille. Now that the kids are perfectly matched, there’s no longer any intergenerational sexual tension between the principals. Further distorting the characters’ original relationship, Hudgens (“High School Musical”) has the clarion voice and aggressive delivery of an unabashed Broadway belter, which gives Gigi vocal dominance over Gaston’s delicately voiced tenor.
A classy design team restores some of the show’s lost magic with dreamy sets and gorgeous costumes that capture the enduring romance of Paris at the turn of the century — a city newly ablaze in lights and full of promise. But the dumbed-down book and hard-bitten direction keep dragging the show away from that audacious era and back to our own thin-skinned age.
To be sure, there are numbers in which the young leads, as Parisian as hot dogs and beer, overcome the awkwardness of their situation. Hudgens has her moment in “The Night They Invented Champagne,” closing the first act with a rousing performance in a number that legitimately suits her hard-driving style. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse also cuts loose with some high-kicking, skirt-swirling moves for the girls in this number, although the boys are more giddy chorus cuties than pleasure-loving men-about-town.
Cott does a really nice job on the title song in act two, combining his crystalline voice with the persuasive delivery of a young man who has just seen the light of love. But more often than not, the principals are just as overzealous about selling the songs as they are about over-enunciating every last one of their “T’s,” “D’s” and “ing’s.”
The more experienced members of the company seem to have ignored that damaging directive from their dialect coach, who also hasn’t managed to give anyone a passable French accent. But no one except Victoria Clark (bless her soul) completely evades helmer Eric Schaeffer’s instructions to knock themselves out on every speech and every song. Clark (a much-valued Broadway stalwart, most recently in “Cinderella”) plays Gigi’s grandmother, Mamita, a once famous courtesan who can still turn the head of an old lover. And in her heartfelt rendering of “Say a Prayer,” she beautifully demonstrates how emotionally devastating a quietly sincere moment can be.
But sincerity isn’t something you can pin on even the most accomplished members of the company. Even the divine Dee Hoty goes over the top on Mamita’s sister, Aunt Alicia, the still glamorous courtesan (especially in those luscious Catherine Zuber gowns) who is training Gigi in the soft arts. And although Howard McGillin (who holds the Broadway record for the longest run in the title role of “The Phantom of the Opera”) seems perfectly cast as the suave Honore Lachaille, he’s not quite there on “I Remember It Well,” the wistful song that the aging roué shares with Mamita, his long-ago lover.
Maybe he’s just smarting from being denied the chance to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” the definitive theme song of nostalgic old bon vivants when it was sung by Maurice Chevalier in the movie. In some foolish attempt to spare modern-day women from feeling demeaned by the values of 1900s Parisians (and ignoring the fact that Colette wrote the novella from her own experiences), the creatives have made the ludicrous choice of assigning the song to Mamita and Aunt Alicia, which makes them seem like a couple of madams sizing up the next crop of courtesans.
Who hasn’t lost their minds in this ill-conceived adaptation? The designers, for sure, have held their own. The sweeping lines of Derek McLane’s ornamental art-nouveau sets not only reference the distinctive iron tracery of the Eiffel Tower and Paris’s Metro entrances and streetlamps, but also subtly allude to the voluptuous curves of the female body admired in that era. Those sensual lines repeat themselves in the hourglass silhouettes of Zuber’s beautifully constructed costumes. Even Natasha Katz’s boldly colorful lighting scheme seems designed to heighten the depth and dimension of the physical forms.
But if the physical look of the show suggests Paris — and specifically, the Paris of Colette’s louche crowd — whenever someone opens his mouth, we’re dragged back to America, where nice people don’t do naughty things.