Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe; Adaptation by Heidi Thomas; Choreography by Joshua Bergasse; Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Broadway, Musical Revival
Open Ended Run
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 4.16.15
The cast of Gigi. Photo by Margot Schulman.
BOTTOM LINE: A spectacular production of a morally objectionable musical succeeds in obscuring its unsavory plot line and delivers all of the elegance, grace, and talent that classic Broadway musicals are known for.
When I first heard that Vanessa Hudgens would be starring as Gigi, my response was, “Who’s Vanessa Hudgens?” I was told she was one of the stars of the High School Musical movie franchise. That’s when I rolled my eyes and scoffed. I fully admit that I came to the Neil Simon Theatre to watch a train wreck. And then Ms. Hudgens made her grand entrance down a long, elegant staircase worthy of the Ziegfeld Follies. Her beautiful face shined brighter than the spotlights. And her crystal clear voice resonated with a power that could have filled the entire theatre district. I hope the theatre community will welcome her with open arms because she does indeed deserve to headline a big Broadway musical.
In fact, if Hudgens were even a little less talented, she would have stuck out like a sore thumb amongst a supporting cast of Broadway veterans who personify style, grace and elegance. Victoria Clark, Howard McGillin and Dee Hoty are magnificent and serve as excellent examples of what it takes to build a lasting career on Broadway. These masters take the stage with an ease that suggests it’s just another day at the office, and Hudgens is lucky to have such talented mentors to lean on.
Playing opposite Hudgens is the very talented Corey Cott. Cott is not just a first rate singer with top-notch musicianship, but an amazing actor who manages to transform the show’s totally forgettable title song into the pivotal emotional reversal on which the story hinges. If Lerner and Loewe were alive, I think they would concede that Cott rescued their mediocre song with a profound and complex interpretation.
Using the bottom of the Eiffel Tower as a canopy under which the entire show takes place, Derek McLane’s set design is imaginative and visually stunning. Catherine Zuber’s costumes epitomize elegance and class, and Natasha Katz’s lighting design sparkles with magic. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is essential to the storytelling. The first scene change in Act Two, from the beach in Trouville back to Paris, is communicated primarily through choreography as dancers clad in swimwear are magically replaced with dancers sporting formal wear.
The only criticism I can offer in good conscience to this virtually flawless production concerns the story itself, which has always been and will always be fraught with -- well, for lack of a better term -- ickiness.
In the original story, Gigi is an adolescent who is being trained by her aunt to become a courtesan. In an attempt to make the story less objectionable in this revised production, adapted by Heidi Thomas, the courtesan storyline is omitted. She receives lessons in etiquette and manners from her Great Aunt Alicia (Hoty), who teachers her that, while love is temporary, jewelry is forever. Gigi develops a platonic friendship with world famous bon vivant Gaston Lachaille (Cott). As she comes of age, her relationship with Gaston transforms from a playful, adolescent friendship to a deep and profound romance. After Gaston discovers his attraction to her, Gigi’s grandmother (Clark) persuades him to provide compensation in exchange for her romantic company (remnants of that courtesan storyline rears its ugly head here). Gigi is understandably offended by the suggestion of a financial arrangement and is prepared to turn her back on true love forever. But as in all romantic musicals, the lovers work out their differences, financial considerations are abandoned, and Gigi and Gaston live happily ever after.
It may very well be that by dropping the courtesan storyline, the show becomes more objectionable instead of less. If I am told upfront that becoming a prostitute is the name of the game, then I agree to enter with a specific set of rules in mind. But by selling me a tale of true love and then suddenly bringing up the financial arrangement of how a young woman will be sold, I find myself implicated in a deplorable situation for which I never signed up.
Though her exact age is never mentioned, contemporary audiences can agree that Gigi is being sexualized disturbingly prematurely. Historically, the most memorable song in the show, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” was performed by Gaston’s womanizing uncle, Honoré Lachaille. I associate the song with the voice of a creepy old French guy who rubs his palms together and salivates at the thought of adolescence. Not exactly the stuff of a lighthearted romantic musical, but more an unnerving tale by Nabokov. The song is reassigned to Gigi’s grandmother and aunt who debate whether the purity of a girl’s youth should be appreciated for its own sake or as a potential commodity for the future. Again, the very debate is repugnant and difficult to stomach in a lighthearted romantic musical.
While the morality in Gigi is reprehensible, it is true to life. Prostitution is an ongoing problem in the 21st century and we can all agree that we live in a society that sexualizes little girls. Instead of obscuring these themes in a brilliantly staged production, Thomas would have done better to deal with them head on so that we can all engage in an honest discussion. As it is, we feel as though the wool has been pulled over our eyes with tremendous talent, style and grace. The experience was highly enjoyable, but somewhat unnerving after I had time to think about it.
(Gigi plays at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, in an open run. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays at 7PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $65.75-$187 and are available at ticketmaster.com.)