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The Night They Re-Invented Champagne
By Colleen Foster
Remember those inflatable kiddie pools? You know, the glorified balloon baskets of idyllic childhood summers? A parent filled them with the garden hose to leave you and your preschool friends to splash away the afternoon in the backyard. Fun, right?
But you can’t swim laps in a kiddie pool, and no matter how much you flail, you won’t get a bubbling jacuzzi. And that’s exactly what this nouveau reworking of Gigi, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is trying to do.
Let’s back up a sec. Or maybe a half century. In a reversal of the typical order of operations in entertainment, this is a stage musical that followed a movie. Lerner and Loewe, one of the A-Teams of the Golden Age of Broadway, first brought Gigi into being in the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron. In 1973, it was given legs and had a brief, unimpressive Broadway run.
Based on a 1944 novella by Colette, the predictable storyline bubbles along as she grows from naïve ingenue to slightly less naïve woman. (Really, we’re talking Madeline to Belle here. This ain’t no Spring Awakening.) When wealthy bon vivant Gaston Lachaille notices, they fall into mutual gauzy love.
This newest revival, with a rewritten book by Heidi Thomas and direction by Eric Schaeffer, local theatrical legend who is worthy of his reputation, strives to escape its dated framework. Songs are ejected and reinserted into different characters’ mouths, such as “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” now sung by two matronly ladies instead of an aging bachelor. A few years have been added to Gigi’s age and Gaston’s has been ratcheted back a few, to reduce the Lolita factor.
It must be noted that, as Gigi, Vanessa Hudgens has officially made a smooth transition from her High School Musical days to real, live, big-girl musical theater. So often when pop singers, be it American Idol or Disney offspring, try to make the leap, the result is either a) something appealing but jarringly out of place, or b) just a straight-up nasal horror. (As has been the fate of multiple recent national tours of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Rock and pop operas are, unsurprisingly, particularly vulnerable to this affliction.) Hudgens, however, does right by Lerner and Loewe’s material. Her voice is youthful but trained, frosted with little glistens of vibrato, and a pleasure to hear.
Then there’s Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille. Dashing and famous, entering gallantly with a a gold-tipped cane, all abuzz about modern inventions. Once I got past wanting to whip out Beauty and the Beast and sing “No one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s quick as Gaston,” I was very much impressed. The role doesn’t give Cott much wiggle room to escape the objectification of his love interest, but with a gorgeous, soaring voice, he does indeed try.
Every show with Eric Schaeffer at the helm has an impeccably filled-out cast, without a single weak link, from headline name to amorphous ensemble swing, and this continues that trend. He and his casting agent(s) have a golden touch. Victoria Clark as Mamita Alvarez, Gigi’s grandmother and guardian, doles out stately, velvet-lined yet tentative affection. Dee Hoty provides contrast as Aunt Alicia, who sidles as close to a take-charge mentality as you can when you’re a Belle Epoque Parisian dowager dripping in pearls. Howard McGillin settles into his sumptuous position as Gaston’s uncle and Mamita’s former beau.
In the end, though, even with this top-notch ensemble, Gigi can’t help being what it is. In the 1950s, the francophile fetishization of all things magnifique was scintillating. Now that so many United States citizens have been to Paris on a honeymoon, semester abroad, or expenditure of frequent flyer miles, it has less exotic mystique.
And the high society courtesan-polishing is, oui, Romantic with a capital “r” but if done today without any self-awareness, feels like guzzling cheap champagne. We buzz and burp, but can’t help but wonder what makes Gigi’s outbursts “insolent” and Gaston’s totally acceptable. (Let’s just say that my plus-one to the theater, a 25-year-old feminist who had spent the day reading Simone de Beauvoir, had a few observations at Intermission.)
If you need anecdotal evidence that it’s break-a-leg chance and luck that labels so many of the successes and failures as such for Playbill posterity, here it is. It’s a given that Gigi is bound for Broadway, set to start previews on March 19.
It’s by no means awful. In fact, for the first hour or so, it’s quite entertaining, an opulent musical slideshow in an Easter egg palette of colors. But if the Neil Simon Theater hadn’t been evacuated by Sting’s sunken Last Ship a week ago, I’m not sure Gigi would be making such an immediate transition.
Maybe first doing another rewrite to, dare I say, revert it BACK to some of the original ‘50s arrangements, would be ideal. Being dated with self-awareness and -acceptance leads to delicious nostalgia, whereas desperate attempts to make a period piece PC leave it sterile, confused, and still somehow... dated. Just past its expiration date now.
Anyway we’ll see how Gigi does on the Great White Way. Let’s raise a glass of Dom Perignon to its second attempt.
#Real #Theater #Theatre #KennedyCenter #DCTheater #WashingtonDC #DCArts #HighSchoolMusical #Gigi #CapitalArts
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