Monday, April 06, 2015

Gigi is back on Broadway

The MGM motion picture Gigi is perhaps the studio's last great musical before the genre became a dinosaur. This original musical for the screen, directed by Vincente Minelli and produced by Arthur Freed, proved to be a box office bonanza, and, as in the team's previous hit an American in Paris, Gigi won the Oscar for Best Film of 1958, as well as eight others.  As a matter of fact, it won an Academy Award for every category in which it was nominated, a record at that time. With its irresistible French cast headed by Maurice Chevalier, and co-starring Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron, the movie was pure champagne, and the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score was a delightful recreation of fin de siècle Paris.  For the composer and the lyricist/screenwriter it was a fitting followup to their Broadway smash hit My Fair Lady two years earlier.

In 1973, Gigi opened on Broadway with additional songs written by Lerner & Loewe. It boasted an all-star cast headed by legends Alfred Drake and Agnes Moorehead, and featuring Maria Karnilova and Daniel Massey. A newcomer, Karin Wolfe, played the title role. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw as a kid, and I loved it, but it proved to be a disappointing flop. The frequent absences of many of its stars and the fact that Ms. Moorehead was diagnosed with cancer during its run did not help matters. It played for only 103 performances at the Uris Theatre (now called the Gershwin.) Thankfully, RCA Victor recorded an Original Broadway cast album which is still available on CDs.

A new production of this property is set to open at the Neil Simon Theatre, and I caught one of its previews last week. The original concept, adapted by Heidi Thomas, consists of taking scissors and shuffling songs around. The original musical opener, for instance,  "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," originally sung by Honoré Lachaille, has now been transformed as a duet for Mamita and Aunt Alicia, and moved to the middle of the first act. It works, but it settles the show into a somewhat safe zone, as if Ms. Thomas thought that a middle aged man singing about little girls could only spell pedophilia for today's audiences. Howard McGillin, who plays Honoré, gets very little to do as a result.  He is still the narrator of the story, but in name only. Since he is not given the chance to profess to the audience his credo, his character quickly develops a hollow center. His second big number "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" is also turned into a duet, this time with the great Victoria Clark who plays Mamita. One begins to ask oneself if Honoré's presence is even required. Mr. McGillin tries to bring him to life, but when you remove the character's guts there's very little that any actor can do to animate him once again. Mr. McGillin may not have the genuine Gallic charm of Chevalier, it is true, but at least give the guy a chance to do something important with his role. Interestingly, when the songs are left to the original characters, the thing works. "I Remember it Well," sung by Honoré and Mamita, this time sung in a street of Paris, and not by the beach of Trouville, maintains the raison d'être of the original film and its gentle charms stops the show. Likewise, Corey Cott as Gaston sings a winning version of the title song.

The show's director, Eric Schaeffer, and his choreographer Joshua Bergasse believe that bigger is better. They have taken the film's grand moment, for instance, when Gigi, Mamita and Gaston celebrate in their house with a bit of the bubbly, and they have turned it into a giant production number. "The Night they Invented Champagne" is now a wild, drunken romp through nighttime Paris, free of absinthe drinkers, of course: after all, it is a family show. The same technique is applied to "She is Not Thinking of Me" and "The Contract," a jewel of a number that was written for the 1973 show.  In each case Mr. Bergasse's choreography seems forced and overblown to giant proportions. It gives one the feeling that the cast is really trying hard, but it ends up being too much artifice for my taste.

With the name above the title, Vanessa Hudgens, a pop star graduate of the Disney High School Musical franchise, plays the title role with believable results. Her best moments are when she's being sassy, trying to cheat Gaston at cards. Her voice is adequate for the role, more pop than Broadway, but she gets away with it. In any event, her youthful zeal carries her performance, and I'm sure that she will settle into the part nicely, provided that the show runs for a while.  I'm afraid that the New York critics will be merciless towards it, however, and as in 1973 you're going to have to act fast if you want to catch it.

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