Review: Vanessa Hudgens does well but can't save 'Gigi'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Whoever decides to revive "Gigi" these days gets a great score by the songwriters behind "My Fair Lady" and an immediate problem. It's a little girl problem.

The Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe 1973 stage adaptation of their beloved, Oscar-winning movie musical of 1958 features an aging bon vivant and noted seducer named Honore singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

Not in 2015 he's not.

So in order to save the score, the creators of a new "Gigi" that opened Wednesday at the Neil Simon Theatre have done a gut renovation on the book by Colette. They've taken out the creepy factor, but they've taken out the zing, too.

"High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens does pretty well in her Broadway debut, handling her singing duties admirably while maturing from girlish brat to Audrey Hepburn-ish stunner during intermission. She's game for a cartwheel or sprinting across the stage, but she might want to lose the strange accent since no one else is doing it.

She's surrounded by good actors, too, including a head-turning performance by Corey Cott, who proves a terrific actor and singer in a frothy show, as well as the always-wonderful Victoria Clark and a gloriously catty Dee Hoty.

Direction by Eric Schaeffer is crisp — a scene with five exasperated lawyers is a treat — and choreography by Joshua Bergasse is excellent, especially in a nifty dance transition from sunny seaside to rainy city. Derek McLane's set of sweeping, iron-lattice stairs and lots of parasols is beautiful, and Catherine Zuber's gowns and foppish suits are very becoming.

All the parts are good. They just, maddeningly, don't add for a stunning show. Both acts end rather unremarkably, like a fallen soufflé, (especially the messy "The Night They Invented Champagne," which disappoints like an eggless soufflé) and the passion between the two lovers at the story's center never seems to really boil. Gigi doesn't have time to fall in love.

Set in Paris in 1900, "Gigi" centers on a teenage girl being groomed to serve as a mistress to wealthy men. Her grandmother (Clark) dislikes the idea, but her great-aunt (Hoty) wants young Gigi encased in jewels. Gigi seems to want to go along for the ride.

Cott plays a family friend — the bored, wealthy playboy, Gaston — who realizes halfway through that he's fallen in love with Gigi. Gaston has usually been played by an older man, but Cott and Hudgens are closer in age and make it work. The song "Gigi," in which Gaston realizes he's smitten, is a triumph.

Meanwhile, Gigi's grandmother has rekindled a long romance with Honore (Howard McGillin) who irritatingly and unnecessarily frames the show ("And there you have it," he says, helpfully. "No one ever really knows what happens in the heart." Actually, no one really knows what you're doing here.)

But that creepy playboy — played by Maurice Chevalier in the film — has been stripped of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" by playwright Heidi Thomas, who wrote the PBS/BBC show "Call the Midwife" and has birthed many new ideas here.

He and Gigi's mother do share the delightful duets "I Remember It Well" but they also sing "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," which used to be his alone, another sign he's been demoted.

Thomas seems to want to focus on the glorious, ooh-la-la Paris, not the unseemly, bed-hopping, adultery-awash Paris with real consequences. Strange, since this is, after all, a tale of high-end grooming and prostitution.

Thomas has tasked Gigi's grandmother and great-aunt to sing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," and, to be honest, they seem a little stunned by the assignment, though they're up to the task. Clark also is given "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," which was sung by Gigi herself in the film with Leslie Caron. The reason Gigi's grandmother sings it now is not entirely clear.

Thomas has tweaked the story to add nods that Gigi and Gaston — the next generation of affluent Parisians — hope for progress, but it's not enough, not like the recent Clark-led musical "Cinderella," which was overhauled effectively for a modern audience.

Here, it's all about the bubbly Champagne. Everyone keeps singing about it but when it arrives, it's lukewarm and flat. Thank heaven for other choices.