a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Gigi 1Of the two “brand new” French musicals on Broadway, “Gigi” is by far my favorite of the two. If I had to pick. And I do. This being theater awards season and all.

I just loved “Gigi” more than I did “An American in Paris”. Both opening inexplicably within days of each other on the Great White Way. And both based on the Oscar-winning movie musicals, both set in Paris, both directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, and both films starring the ever-soignee Leslie Caron.

I was utterly captivated by this “new” “Gigi” now starring the tiny little Disney starlet perky Vanessa Hudgens. I was really ready to not like what this revival of “Gigi”, one of my favorite films of all time, portended. A French “High School Musical” which is Ms. Hudgens’ prior claim to fame.

But it completely captivated me.  Why? Well, it was almost like discovering a new Lerner and Loewe musical from when they were in their prime.

“Gigi” was based originally on a novella by the great French writer Collette, which was then turned into a play(without music) starring the young and then-unknown Audrey Hepburn. It was a hit in 1951 and launched Hepburn’s career..

Then Vincente Minnelli and Lerner and Loewe decided to musicalize it  this time as a movie, and voila! It won NINE Academy Awards including Best Picture, and was an international hit movie(as was “An American in Paris” also a superb film, but more on that later.)

THEN, in a little-known side-bar to American Musical Comedy history, it was made into a Broadway musical adding in more music in the early ’70s with Alfred Drake and Agnes Moorehead and it flopped. Taking with it some wonderful songs “Paris is Paris Again”. “A Toujours”, “I Never Want to Go Home Again” and more.

Not to be heard again, until now. This current “Gigi” has got a lot of very good things just right. It’s got a je ne sais quoi adaptation  by Heidi Thomas, who has captured the great elan this souffle MUST have. She has retained all the famous numbers, but er, re-arranged them all over the place.

Giving songs that were sung by Maurice Chevalier, for instance, “Thank Heavens for Little Girls” to the non-pareil Tony Winner Victoria Clark. Clark is having ANOTHER great Broadway moment as Mamita, the role made famous in the movie by legendary British comedianne Hermione Gingold. Clark, also scores with a solo that was formerly Gigi’s, “Say a Prayer.” Her role as Gigi’s gran-mere is emphasized here and her golden soprano used to perfection. This version of “Gigi” seems to be being told from the grandmother’s very sympathetic point of view.

Of course, you really have to squint in the  delightfully dark Belle Époque settings of Derek McLane ( atmospherically lit to perfection by Natasha Katz, who also has lit “An American in Paris”!) to see that “Gigi” is the story of a young girl being raised by her grandmother and aunt to be a high-class prostitute. The Disney-i-facation is apparent here, because it’s so subtle, so INFERRED. A tween Hudgens fan, might rightly assume the Gigi’s gran-mere is overly concerned with getting Gigi a very nice apartment.

Victoria Clark is mightily aided in this dramatic re-interpretation by the delicious Dee Hoty as Gigi’s Aunt Alicia, and Clark’s sister-in-crime. In fact, they BOTH sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” the first time we hear it. And we hear it a lot. It is to their vast credit that “Gigi” is as witty and insouciant this time around. The duo never cease to delight and surprise.

Keeping up the male end of things is the incredibly agile, incredibly young and incredibly short Gaston of Corey Cott. Ms. Hudgens, as I said, is quite tiny, too, so they seem made for each other. Playing a world-weary bon-vivant is a bit of a stretch for youngster Cott ( a 40-something Louis Jourdan played him so memorably in the movie), but Cott is just right here in joining in the joie de vivre of Mamita and Gigi as they (and then all of Paris) celebrate “The Night They Invented Champagne.”

Cott also hits a dramatic high-point, this time on a moonlit park bench, with the title song “Gigi.”

Far less successful is the unfortunate Howard McGillin, who has to fill Chevalier’s huge Gallic shoes. His & Mamita’s “Yes I Remember It Well” is sung with an umbrella in a rain shower. It was all wet. He seems to be apologizing for his performance every time he steps onstage.

But McLane’s setting, Katz’ ever-versatile lighting and Catherine Zuber’s exuberant costumes carry along youngsters Cott and Hudgens til, yes, we watch them grow up right before our eyes, as they become the stage stars they have to be to make this “Gigi” work. That’s not the original Collette’s plot, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.

I love Old Fashioned Book Musicals, with characters rather than concepts,and heavenly music that bubbles you out the door, and if you do, too, “Gigi” is the new-old musical for you.

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