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The appeal of Gigi has always depended on tricks of memory. (Ah, yes, I remember it well.) Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 movie musical won a then-record nine Oscars, including Best Picture, on the strength of the lush score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, charming performances by Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, and the colorful depiction of Belle Epoque Paris. But even by the time of a short-lived stage adaptation in 1973, Collette’s tale of a barely-legal teenage girl groomed to be an older man’s mistress seemed positively retrograde. At its worst, the show can seem like a pervier Gallic retread of Lerner & Loewe’s earlier masterpiece My Fair Lady.
For the spirited new Broadway revival, which opened Wednesday at the Neil Simon Theatre, director Eric Schaeffer and playwright Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) have craftily chosen to update the material. Gigi, played by former High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens in a striking Broadway debut, has been aged up a few years and given more agency for the decisions about her future — she’s the one who presses for marriage rather than the courtesan status with the young, fabulously wealthy playboy Gaston (Newsies‘ Corey Cott) whom she’s long regarded as a surrogate older brother. Gaston, too, has lost a decade and appears to be in his mid-20s.
Perhaps most importantly, the show’s signature song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” has been reassigned from Gaston’s aging roué of an uncle, Honore Lachaille (Howard McGillen, slightly miscast in the role Chevalier made famous). Now it’s a duet for Gigi’s two maternal influences: her grandmother Mamita (Victoria Clark), and her jewelry- and etiquette-obsessed Aunt Alicia, a former courtesan herself (the delightful Dee Hoty). The ick factor of a senior citizen lustily singing, “Without them what would little boys do?” has effectively been muted.
Hudgens, looking remarkably like a young Catherine Zeta Jones, delivers a credibly gawky performance in the title role. She’s more coltish than coquettish, particularly in the first act, but she flashes a winning girlishness that is hard to deny in numbers like “The Parisians,” where her clear, vibrato-less voice stands out. As her young admirer, Cott seems oddly ill at ease in the first act but he comes into his own after intermission, particularly on his heartfelt rendition of the title song. The standout among the cast, though, is the magnificent Victoria Clark, whose Mamita (in this version) seems torn between the avaricious old courtesan traditions and her granddaughter’s more modern approach to romance for its own sake. The Tony winner’s operatic voice has lost none of its shimmer over the years, and she radiates a palpable sense of maternal warmth.
With its wrought-iron framework, Derek McLane’s stunning set design effectively evokes turn-of-the-20th-century Paris (and the then-new Eiffel Tower), and Catherine Zuber’s costumes add an oo-la-la oomph to choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s high-stepping production numbers.
But despite the best efforts of Schaeffer and his team, Gigi remains a dated curiosity. There’s only so much you can do to dress up a story about the education of a courtesan, after all, and the show barely has enough plot to sustain two full acts. There are pleasures to be found in Gigi, to be sure, but they are as effervescent and ephemeral as a champagne bubble. Grade: B