The Jet Set, Paris, 1900Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Baskerville
Thank heaven for Vanessa Hudgens.
The energetic Disney movie star, yanked back a hundred years in the new revival of the musical Gigi in New York, steals the show and the hearts of everybody in the audience. She sings, she dances, she beguiles and she swoons, too, to the rich, sumptuous music of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe.
Gigi, which opened Thursday at New York’s Neil Simon Theater on West 52d Street, is an absolute delight with Hudgens kidnapping the emotions of the audience and never letting go.
Gigi , smoothly directed by Eric Schaeffer, is a lavish, lush retelling of Collete’s 1944 story and the 1958 movie, that starred Leslie Caron as Gigi, Louis Jordan as Gaston and the mercurial Maurice Chevalier as Honore, the well-dressed, dapper senior citizen womanizer. The play gives you a wonderful look at 1900 Paris, at the height of the La Belle Époque era, when French fashion, music, literature, culture and romance were all at their peak at the same time. It is a luscious portrait of the Parisian jet set of 1900, with all of their parties, picnics, summer beach vacations and balls – and gossip and grudges, too.
Gigi, a French teenager, drifts into the jet set life with her old friend Gaston, whom she has known since childhood. Gaston is a rich, fashionable, good looking playboy, the quintessential Man About Town, the Bon Vivant’s Bon Vivant. He is bored with his extravagant life and desperately seeking meaning for it (a girl). Gigi is the poor but spirited grand-daughter of a friend of his, Mamita. The play takes place when Gigi is 18 or so, changing from a bubbly and adorable girl into a gorgeous young woman, Gaston cannot help noticing the changes in his old friend and becomes smitten with her.
At the same time, Gigi’s grandmother and her sister Alicia are trying, very unsuccessfully, to play matchmaker to the pair. Their plan, acceptable at the time, was to make Gigi a “kept woman,” with her own apartment and servants, awaiting Gaston’s romantic trysts. They should not have tried; cupid is already hard at work.
Cupid has his work cut out, though, as the pair tumbles into a serious squabble.
Hudgens is the wonder of the year as Gigi, but Cory Cott is a wonder, also, as Gaston. He is a fine singer, but a splendid actor, too. In one sad scene the much in love Gaston and is every guy having trouble with his girl in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. All of the key players in the story are outstanding. There is a nice chemistry between the grandmother Mamita, played by Victoria Clarke, and her sister Alicia, played by Dee Hoty. Howard McGillin, as Honore, is no Chevalier, but does a fine job as an elderly rue who falls in love all over again. Steffanie Leigh plays Liane, a Paris high society woman.
The set by Derek McLane is majestic ad serves nicely as Maxim’s fabled nightclub, a beach and Gigi’s apartment. If the Paris tourism office needs a new poster they should just photograph his sprawling set. The rich 1900 period costumes by Catherine Zuber give an elegant charm to the production. The choreography by Joshua Bergasse is just breathtaking. His dancers twirl all about the City of Lights with an easy grace and charm.
The splashy musical has problems, though. This time the women sing the signature song of the show, Thank Heaven for Little Girls. Maurice Chevalier made it world famous in the film; the women completely mangled it. The play is very long at two and a half hours. The plot moves ever so slowly throughout much of act one. I know you need to develop characterizations, but you do not have to take all night to do it. The play drones on and on and on until the end of the act. The stars are fine, but some of the other actors just walk through the story. The story is thin, too. Nobody else lived in Paris except a bunch of often tedious rich party-goers?
The first act ends with a rousing, spectacular, stage filled rendition of the show’s other hit tune, They Night They Invented Champagne, though, and it is one of the best numbers on Broadway in years.
The first act finale is the perfect example of why people love musicals and musicals about history. A few good tuneful show stoppers here help to wipe out some of the gripes one might have had about the slow start of the show. It is a splendid example, too, of how period costumes, choreography, music and set can thoroughly engage you in the play.
That combination works well most of the time here because Gigi is set in the middle of the La Belle Epoque era. That period began in the 1870s and ended with World War I. It was a time of peace and prosperity and marvelous achievement in the arts, especially in Paris. Later, after the war, people remembered it fondly as the ‘golden age.’ Book adaptor Heidi Thomas, relying heavily on Collette’s characterizations, also paints a nice portrait of the types of people living in the era, and their obsessive need for gossip, money and fame (sound familiar?).1900 is presented as a golden year in that golden era in the play and several references are made to the Paris World’s Fair of 1900. It was a time of great beauty and even greater Parisian pride (working class people complained though that all they got out of it was La Belle hard work and low pay).
It is very difficult to produce a play based on a film, but especially hard to do it with a classic like Gigi. The producers and director are telling a story about a man and a woman at the same time they are telling you about Paris in 1900. Lots of people know the story, too. They do a decent job of it, though.
PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by Jenna Segal, others. Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Lighting: Natasha Katz, Sound: Kai Harada, Choreography: Joshua Bergasse. The play is directed by Eric Schaeffer. It has an open ended run.
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