Can a polished chestnut best-known from a 57-year-old film capture the modern theater audiences that it failed to woo in 1973? That’s the operative question for producers of the spiffy but risky revival of the Lerner and Loewe staple “Gigi” that has bowed at the Kennedy Center en route to Broadway. Teen fave Vanessa Hudgens (Disney’s “High School Musical”) toplines a cast of Broadway regulars that gives its all for the cause.
A long-time project for lead producer Jenna Segal, the show is slated to open in April at the Neil Simon Theater, where it replaces the recently shuttered Sting musical “The Last Ship.” Eric Schaeffer, a.d. of Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater, directs.
Segal and colleagues are banking on broad acceptance of their $12 million investment, which has clear strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side is the luscious Frederick Loewe score, containing some of the most iconic melodies written for the stage. But their fingers are understandably crossed that Hudgens’ youthful fan base and other first timers will be drawn to the book’s melodramatic tale of a Belle Epoque Parisian girl being groomed as a courtesan. (The original Broadway production in 1973 lasted just three months.)
Screenwriter Heidi Thomas (“Call the Midwife”) has made some shrewd adaptations to the book, based on the 1944 novella by Colette. Importantly, she has addressed the lecherous aspects of the story by adding several years to Gigi’s age and subtracting about a decade from the wealthy playboy Gaston (Corey Cott), who is her paramour. Not only are the two now age-appropriate, but the assertive rule-breaker Gigi also gains greater control of the relationship thanks to the Thomas rewrite.
In the same vein, the tune “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” has been taken away from the elderly Honore (Howard McGillin) and placed in the capable hands of the show’s two principal adult women, the ever-watchful grandmother (Victoria Clark) and the assertive Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty). It’s an effective change that presents the song in a loving embrace while demonstrating how the duo lives vicariously through their beautiful young charge.
The show has enormous visual appeal thanks to Derek McLane’s impressive set, dominated by a graceful iron canopy clearly inspired by the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and a sweeping staircase that serves as a functional backdrop for several locales, especially the elegant Maxim’s. Lighting by Natasha Katz makes the mood, from subdued to outlandish.
The open set is constantly filled with an eye-popping array of lavish costumes from Catherine Zuber — vibrant gowns and hats for the ladies, white tie and tails for the gentlemen, and always the top hat. Contrasting the formal wear are the parasols and colorful period bathing suits at the beach.
Director Schaeffer has stretched the cast to adopt a melodramatic style, at times employing exaggerated movements and an effete style of speech, especially in the introductory scenes. The technique can be wearing at times, especially in Act One scenes involving the two strident guardians. Thankfully, the forced French accents employed in the 1958 film have wisely been dispensed with.
Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is a consistent delight with dances both boisterous and intimate. Standouts include the lively opening number and the delightful Act Two scene in which Gigi’s two guardians match wits with a cadre of buffoonish lawyers in the sublime number “The Contract.”
Performances on the whole are sturdy. Hudgens delivers a solid performance in a challenging role that requires a transition from impetuous brat to mature young woman. A strong singer, Hudgens nails both her vocal and dancing duties, with the former especially showcased in Act One’s spunky “The Parisians.”
Cott convinces as the self-assured playboy and his strong tenor voice impresses in the title tune, carefully placed in the second act as the character discovers his true feelings for Gigi.
Clark has the cast’s strongest voice and displays it throughout in numbers like “Thank Heaven” and her tender solo, “Say a Prayer.” Hoty remains in high gear throughout as the possessive aunt wedded to tradition.
In the role associated with Maurice Chevalier, made less prominent here, McGillin takes a nuanced approach as a perpetual girl-watcher with a heart. He savors his big numbers, “I Remember It Well” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
Producers and creatives have smartly crafted a polished production for this revival — but in a competitive Broadway season, the show may need some luck, and the critics’ blessings, to ensure it survives longer than the musical’s first visit to the Rialto.