Vanessa Hudgens stars in a reboot of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical.
Thank heaven for Vanessa Hudgens. When the High School Musical ingenue comes running down the grand staircase at the start of Eric Shaeffer's revival of Lerner and Loewe's Gigi at the Neil Simon Theatre, you can't help but smile. It's the same grin that washes across your face while watching the beguiling Leslie Caron in the Vincente Minnelli film. In this Broadway revisal, Hudgens is a ray of sunshine surrounded by less-than-stellar circumstances.
Even though Gigi won the 1959 Oscar for Best Picture and the 1974 Best Score Tony Award when its original scribes finally brought it to the stage, it isn't a piece that holds up in either medium, certainly when compared with other works by the prolific pair behind My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Therefore, it is a welcome decision to revise the musical version for this production, reassigning songs and giving a little more presence to its title character. However, despite all the fine-tuning by adapter Heidi Thomas for this deluxe production, it's hard to make a case for Gigi as one of America's beloved musicals.
Thomas, creator of TV's Call the Midwife, restores the title role as the center of the plot, as it was in the original novel by Colette. The Gigi of the 1958 film and the 1973 Broadway musical was a supporting character, a teen being groomed by her family for life as a courtesan within a tale spun by the aged roué, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier indelibly on-screen, Howard McGillin here) about sexual mores in carefree Belle Époque Paris. The 2015 reboot is still set in Paris circa 1900, a place where wealthy men buy affection from mistresses, and Gigi is poised to follow that path. However, in this version, she is written as a blossoming modern woman, whose desire for independence frees her from the old-school mentality of her family.
To tone down the original material's lecherousness, Thomas has aged Gigi up from 15 to 18 and subtracted a decade off her wealthy, chronically bored, mistress-dumping love interest Gaston (Corey Cott, in the role that Louis Jourdan played in the film) making it an age-appropriate relationship. Thomas also solves the problem of the best-known song in the score, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" — originally sung by Chevalier as he stared at young ladies playing catch — by reassigning it to Gigi's attentive grandmother (Tony winner Victoria Clark) and devious Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty).
Additionally, Thomas further develops the show's characters: She gives Gigi a more independent side (a well-considered choice); Gaston is now a would-be philanthropist; his first flame, Lianne d'Exelmans (Steffanie Leigh, fiendishly entertaining), is now an aspiring singer. And the secondary love story, between Mamita and Honoré, is strengthened to make tunes like "I Remember It Well" feel less shoehorned. But ultimately, the book never takes flight and Schaeffer's production far too often feels weighed down by purposeless talking.
In her Broadway debut, the ebullient Hudgens makes an ideal Gigi, a bubbly and energetic raw talent with charisma to spare. Whether bouncing about the stage proclaiming how she doesn't understand love during "The Parisians" or, in her best-sung and best-acted moment, coming to the realization that she'd "rather be miserable" with Gaston than without, Hudgens is not only believable, but also truthful. You can't take your eyes off of her.
Cott fares less well as a romantic leading man who's regrettably anything but. Perhaps with stronger directorial choices, he'd find a more engaging way into his wishy-washy character, but as it stands, you never get the impression that his feelings for Gigi have grown from sibling-like pals to romantic lovers. While his delivery of the title song almost thrills, he musters only a sputter when he needs to sizzle.
Vocally, it's Clark who wins the production, wonderfully employing her carefully nuanced soprano in songs like "Say a Prayer," and serving as an expert foil for the delightfully cynical Hoty. To that end, she also makes an affectionate partner for the dashing McGillin, and their romantic scenes together become "aww"-worthy, even if his role has been so diminished from what is was in the film that it seems barely necessary now.
If the show could use anything to infuse it with magic, it's additional production numbers like "The Night They Invented Champagne," with the expert 16-member ensemble tossing bubbly bottles in the air with abandon, and "I Never Want to Go Home Again," which features the leading lady cartwheeling around the stage. Like his breathtaking work earlier this season in On the Town, Joshua Bergasse's balletic choreography is a major highlight.
Similarly, the top-drawer creative team is also working at the top of its game. Derek McLane's massive sets lovingly pay tribute to the City of Light, replicating the Eiffel Tower's iron-lattice base framing each scene. Catherine Zuber's resplendent costumes, colored in sunny pastels, are enhanced by Natasha Katz's cinematic lighting; all of these elements combine to create a fitting throwback to the Technicolor film. An 11-member orchestra, under the baton of musical director Greg Jarrett, lusciously plays August Eriksmoen's vivid orchestrations through crystalline sound design by Kai Harada.
When all is said and done, Gigi is an insubstantial property, despite a peerless score by Lerner and Loewe. This production belongs to Hudgens and we all know it. The young actress gives a much-needed jolt of excitement to a piece that could use every ounce of it.