Theater Review: A Disney Star in a Girl-Power Gigi

Photo: Margot Schulman

A note in the Playbill for the new production of Gigi explains that the title character “first burst upon the world” in a novella by “French authoress” Colette. Authoress? It says everything about this misbegotten revisal of the 1973 stage musical adaptation of the 1958 movie musical adaptation of the 1951 stage dramatic adaptation of the 1944 original that the producers could attach such a condescending word to one of France’s greatest writers. There’s nothing diminutive or amateur or fustily feminine about the novella: It may have a happy ending (or maybe not), but it’s hard as nails along the way. The attempt to turn such a property into a girl-power fantasy, in part by casting Disney star Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi — and in part by de-perving it completely — has left it more perverted than ever, and altogether unworthy of its name.

Not that the property was so pure even before Heidi Thomas, the English dramatist credited with the new adaptation, got her hands on it. The fleet silver fish of a novella that Colette turned out in war-torn Paris (and sold to a Vichy publisher) had long since been woman- and manhandled. The first play version, starring Audrey Hepburn, appeared on Broadway in a rewrite by Anita Loos. Most of us are more familiar with it as the Lerner and Loewe movie musical, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Leslie Caron. That version, though deboned and slathered with Hollywood béarnaise, was nevertheless one of the last of the great MGM musicals, deservedly winning nine Oscars. It may have exaggerated the original’s romantic aspects, but it did not entirely divorce them from sex and real life. In it, Gigi is still a pubescent girl being trained for life as a mistress to wealthy men by her grandmother Mamita and great-aunt Alicia, themselves once courtesans. When their slumming friend Gaston Lachaille — Paris’s most eligible bachelor — begins to see Gigi as sexually attractive, they lay their traps. The crux of the original, which Lerner was too smart to mess with, is that Gigi, even though she loves Gaston, does not want to be his mistress. She holds out for marriage. We are left to consider whether, for a poor young woman in 1900 or indeed anytime after, her success was also a victory. 

That Gigi is 15 in the original, and Gaston 33, was of little consequence to Colette, who’d blithely conducted a five-year affair with her teenage stepson. For the movie, the limits of nubility were stretched even further, with Lerner giving a largely invented character — Gaston’s elderly uncle, Honoré — the leering paean “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” While there is no suggestion of pedophilia in it (the lyric explains that little girls “get bigger every day”), Thomas here works awfully hard to fan away from the proceedings any possible odor of statutory rape. She not only foreshortens the lovers’ age gap from both ends (Gigi is now 18, Gaston apparently 25) but inanely reassigns the offending song, which is too delicious to cut, to Mamita and Alicia. (It is left unexplained how the little girls’ eyes will one day send these tough old birds “crashing through the ceiling.”) To be fair, Colette’s model for Gaston was actually 60, so even she was cleaning things up a bit; and perhaps it’s excusable now to clean them up further as a nod to contemporary oversensitivity. But too much of this leaves you with a college sexual-harassment pamphlet instead of literature. If Gigi is 18 to start with, how much change is likely to have taken place in her? If she and Gaston are near contemporaries, where is the danger, and thus the thrill, of the attraction? There is none, as the shrieking hordes of Hudgens fans in the mezzanine made deafeningly clear the night I attended. For them, the pair might as well have been dolls: big heads, no genitals. What would they have made of Mamita’s droll aside — omitted from the musical — about hygiene but so much more: “For a woman, attention to the lower parts is the first law of self-respect”? 

The production’s desperation to appeal to tweens instead of their parents results in a disastrous if not deliberate misreading of the tale. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if the show worked on its own terms, but it did not in 1973 when Lerner brought Loewe out of retirement to expand the movie into a stage property, and it certainly doesn’t now. There is still, mercifully, the score, which even if all jumbled about still contains five truly great songs and several good ones too. (Most of the newly interpolated ones are distinctly third-drawer, however.) And visually there is much to admire. Derek McLaine’s Art Nouveau settings are an elegant solution to the problem of a story in which one of the stars is Paris itself; Catherine Zuber’s costumes are a marvel of shapeliness, accuracy, and detail. (That’s a good thing in a show that often fails to hold the attention; you can always count buttons.) But most of the other decisions made by the creative team — the director is Eric Schaeffer — reduce rather than enhance the story.

Unfortunately, that starts with the title casting. It’s hard to blame Hudgens herself: She is way too inexperienced to have been asked to take on such a large and difficult role. Furthermore, she has not been helped by direction that emphasizes her physical awkwardness, by vocal coaching that has resulted in an unpleasantly coarse belt, and by diction lessons that have her sounding like Eliza Doolittle condemned to an endless performance of “The Rain in Spain.” But then almost everyone seems to be on loan from some other show. There’s even a swishy black butler airdropped from La Cage aux Folles; are swishy black butlers a French entitlement? 

This is so not the kind of material that wants camping; if it’s not going to be dirty it had better be debonair. Instead we are given great glugs of musical-theater syrup (Gaston’s wealth comes from sugar) and such broad overplaying as to render assisted-hearing devices completely unnecessary. Only two of the performers succeed at the minimal task of simulating some form of reality. One is Corey Cott as Gaston, who at first seems done in by the down-aging, but whose boyish confusion about his feelings, as described in the title song, is eventually rather moving. The other, no surprise, is Victoria Clark as Mamita. It’s hard to understand where this superb singing actress finds the character: surely not in the script. (The part, in being substantially expanded for her, has been rejiggered into incoherence.) Yet somehow it’s only when Clark is in a scene that there is a scene. Whether it’s a scene that properly belongs to Gigi is at this point moot; we must be grateful for what signs of intelligence we get.  

And yet how painful it is, rereading the original, to see how much intelligence has been lost. Intelligence and bravery: Colette was herself the beneficiary of courageous Gigi-like decisions. (Also, like Gigi perhaps, the victim.) And even the MGM musical, for all its mid-century smarm, overflows with craftsmanship. In particular, Loewe’s genius for crystallizing dramatic tone in melody was then at its peak: You can almost smell the Riviera in “I Remember It Well,” feel the boulevardier’s swagger in “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” and hear the pop of the corks in “The Night They Invented Champagne.” That last number, an intimate trio in the movie, here becomes both a haplessly elaborated Act One closer (complete with cancan girls) and the inevitable curtain call sing-along. A special effect even sends bubbles floating over the audience, but needless to say they aren’t Veuve Cliquot. They’re soap.

Gigi is at the Neil Simon Theatre.

*A version of this article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.