Neil Simon Theatre
4 April 2015
One can't be certain what was happening on the night they invented champagne, but one can be fairly confident they were not thinking about the possibility that one day their achievement would be the raison d'être for an ebullient Act One finale for a Broadway musical. Yet, there it is. The infectious and utterly silly tune for all seasons, The Night They Invented Champagne, is the giddy Act One closer of Gigi, now in previews for its first Broadway revival since the famous film was adapted for the stage in 1973.
Yes, that's right. It closes Act One. This is not so much a revival as a substantial reworking of the piece. In the 1973 version, the first Act concluded with the scene where Gaston took Gigi (and, her grandmother, Mamita) to the beach and the prospect that the relationship between them would change from something like brother and sister to something like respectable millionaire and courtesan was finally on the table.
But, by making Act One end with the the good fun piece, The Night They Invented Champagne, the new revised book separates the two Acts along different lines. Now the first Act is about the happy relationship between Gaston, Mamita and Gigi, the plans Aunt Alicia has to train Gigi properly as a courtesan, and the delightful possible rekindling of a long lost love between Mamita and Honoré, Gaston's Uncle.
The second Act is devoted entirely to the change in the relationship between Gaston and Gigi and the consequences and repercussions of that change, affecting, as it does, not just Gaston and Gigi, but Mamita, Honoré and Aunt Alicia. This all works very well indeed and there is great sense behind the rejigging.
The moment at the top of Act Two, where Gaston and Gigi are on the beach, she obsessed by the flight of a seagull and he coming to see her in a way he has not seen before, is both touching and exciting. Her simple act of leaning her head into his shoulder, for natural support and because she is entirely at home, sends a shudder of anticipatory romantic thrill through the auditorium.
There are other changes too, ones that transform the piece. Thank Heavens For Little Girls is always an uncomfortable song when delivered by a man either in, or well past, his prime; times have changed since the song was penned and, alive to the Jimmy Savile factor, the creatives here have reassigned the song to Mamita and Aunt Alicia, and in their delivery it has all the sparkle and joy it rightfully should enjoy.
Say A Prayer, a truly beautiful ballad from Frederick Loewe, is given tremulous incandescence by becoming the eleven o'clock number for Mamita, here played by the vocally sublime Victoria Clark who gives every note its full, blooming beauty. Not previously included in the stage adaptation, but in the famous film, this was a number for Leslie Caron's Gigi, albeit dubbed by Betty Wand. Giving it to Mamita is inspired, but does detract from the overall importance of the role Gigi herself plays in the musical where she is the title character.
Indeed, the most interesting thing about this reworking of the piece is that, while it may be called Gigi, and there is constant talk of, with and about her, the fact is that Gigi is but a supporting character. Really, the musical should be retitled Gaston because this production is about him in every way.
The story is based on a novella by Colette. The original book and lyrics were written by Alan Jay Lerner and have been adapted here by Heidi Thomas, the genius behind the television series Cranford. There is a sincerity and inherent charm to the dialogue, the structure of phrases and the sensibilities of the time in which the musical is set: 1900, sometime around the time of the Exposition Universelle. There is an Oscar Wilde feel to the language and style, a gentle and genteel lampooning of the then French society (which was not really different from English society).
Gaston is a young but very, very rich bachelor (Sugar accounts for his wealth) and renowned for his taste in beautiful mistresses and obsessed about by the society figures who scour the newspapers and magazines for gossip. He takes some refuge in the quiet normalcy of Mamita's apartment, where she resides with her grand-daughter Gigi. The trio are great friends and Gaston relies upon Mamita's wisdom and counsel to guide him through his life and he treasures Gigi as the little sister he never had.
Mamita's sister, Alicia, was a very successful courtesan in her younger years and intends to train Gigi up, make her in Alicia's own mould, in order to give her the best chance in life. Mamita goes along with this as long as Gigi is happy. Gigi, for her part, doesn't really understand the point of her lessons – she just wants to have fun, enjoy her life, and trust her instincts.
Gaston ends his relationship with the soprano Liane and plans a holiday by the beach to escape the prying eyes and prattling tongues of French society. Gigi cheats at a card game and secures his agreement to take Mamita and her with him. He knows she has cheated but agrees anyway. While at the beach, Gaston realises that Gigi is growing up and is not just his girly pal. Aunt Alicia goes into full swing with Gigi's training, wanting to position Gigi most favourably as a possible mistress for Gigi. When Gaston returns from a business trip, he is shocked to see Gigi all decked out in a proper woman's outfit, an outfit designed to make him want to consider her as his mistress.
Gaston freaks out, insults Gigi and her dress and storms out into the night. On a bench in a Park, he realises that his reaction was because he has fallen in love with Gigi. He returns to Mamita's apartment and apologises, indicating that he will instruct his lawyers to make the appropriate arrangements with Aunt Alicia so that he may formally begin an affair with Gigi. For her part, Gigi does not want to be a mistress to Gaston, but admits to herself that that she would rather be unhappy with him than unhappy without him. The contract is agreed and Gaston and Gigi begin their arrangement by a rendezvous at Maxim's but neither enjoy it. Finally, Gaston understands he wants Gigi for life and they marry.
While all this is going on, Mamita reacquaints herself with Gaston's lothario Uncle, Honoré. They were lovers decades ago, nearly married but for his infidelity and her unwillingness to overlook it. Despite his bad memory of that time (the genuine delight that is I Remember It Well), Honoré wants to reunite with her. Mamita is unsure and it is not until the final tableaux of the evening that Honoré gets his answer.
The abhorrent notion of a young girl being sold into sexual slavery for life with arrogant rich men who will casually use her and feel fine simply because of the gifts they bestow is all but washed away in this sumptuous and delicately balanced revival directed by Eric Schaeffer. Perhaps that is why the focus here is more clearly on Gaston? That way, the narrative becomes about how Gaston abandons the de rigeur Society approach to life and love and saves Gigi from her Aunt Alicia's plans rather than being the adventures of Gigi.
Designer Derek McLane provides a representational evocation of Paris, with clever use of parts of iconic landmarks to indicate the setting casually, rather than with cumbersome and heavy sets. Maxim's is a treat of red velvet and gold trim and Mamita's apartment is as perfect for her as Aunt Alicia's grander setting is for her. Everything is suggested, hinted at; the overall effect is like the partial reveal of a sumptuously hand-made stocking underneath high quality silk gowns. You don't get the whole picture, but the effect is more than enough to set the scene, inventively, seductively. Elegance is the specific tone and every aspect of McLane's design emphasises that.
Consistent with McLane's vision, elegance and beauty are the key aspects of Catherine Zuber's exquisite costume designs. Everyone looks brilliantly, stunningly chic and ravishing at all times. Even the thorny problem of turn of the Century beach wear is solved by clever, flattering design choices. The formal attire, for both men and women, is top drawer. Gaston wears a fawn leather motoring overcoat in one scene which is a triumph of manly style; Alicia, Honoré and Mamite are never less than impeccably turned out. Gigi looks stunning when she is finally allowed to wear gowns, although her big reveal black and white dress smacked a little too much of the Ascot Gavotte sequence from the film of My Fair Lady.
Joshua Bergasse's lively and inventive choreography throughout, particularly in the big production numbers, is very impressive. The discipline of the dancers is exceptional and the steps have a refined sense of fun and style about them. Combined with the set and costumes, Bergasse's choreography radiates old-world charm but in a totally up-to-date way.
Musically, the show is in good hands with James Moore, Greg Jarrett and Matt Aument and although many, many more strings than three are really needed to properly service Loewe's score, the brass section of the orchestra is well served and the keyboard bulks up the support. The singing is first rate from the company, with diction and tunefulness spot on throughout.
Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty are faultless as Mamite and Alicia respectively, both bringing gravitas and sterling skill to every part of their performances. Clark is the best vocalist on stage and the soul of the piece soars every time she sings. Her full, expansive Soprano is unfettered and, like a perfect jewel, many colours permeate her pure sound. She is light and amiable in Thank Heavens For Little Girls and I Remember It Well, hearty and joyful in The Night They Invented Champagne and soaring and passionate in Say A Prayer. Glorious sound constantly.
Hoty is marvellously droll as the wily, rich and imperious ex-courtesan. She comes across as a direct relation to both Madame Armfeldt and Endora, and can quell insubordination with the slightest arch of impeccably manicured eyebrows. Breeding and disdain are her hallmarks and while she is funny, the humour comes from the truthfulness of her performance.
There is a devilish twinkle in Howard McGillan's eye as he saunters, somewhat majestically, in the shoes of Honoré. He is faultlessly charming and charmingly faultless. His singing is relaxed and utterly delightful. His work with Clark pulses with style and they pair beautifully. Steffanie Leigh, as Liane, the mistress Gaston rejects, makes as much as she can of the role and is suitably glamorous and grasping.
When she took her final bow, the crowd went wild for Vanessa Hudgens as they hurled themselves into an enthusiastic standing ovation. Casting her as Gigi, however, seems as mistaken as it would be to cast Patti Lu Pone as Eliza Dolittle or Liza Minelli as Julie Jordan. Her brash voice and style just does not suit the delicate framework of the character or the production. She needs to sing less like Eponine and more like Cosettte. This is not Hudgens' fault; it is a miscasting issue.
That said, and especially once she gets to Act Two, Hudgens is serviceable in the role. She is at her best in the scenes with Clark and the moment when she writes the letter to Gaston is her best work. She works very hard to play against her natural type but the delicacy and stupendous naivety that Gigi must have in spades in the first Act is not achieved. Vocally, Hudgens is brassy and broad; she hits all the notes correctly, but not in the style of the show or the other performances. Her stage presence is undoubted, so her performance as Gigi is one she mostly gets away with.
But the true star of this Gigi is Corey Cott, who is in simply magnificent form as Gaston, Paris' favourite would-be Sugar Daddy. Cott is the real deal, a manly lead with film star looks who can dance, act and sing with real expertise. Vocally, his high baritone voice is powerful and compellingly attractive – his treatment of the title song, Gigi, is the vocal highpoint of the evening; the dramatic realisation of his feelings for Gigi expressed through perfectly phrased, perfectly supported, creamy legato singing.
Character wise, his Gaston is perfect. Entitled, smooth, self-aware, endlessly convivial, youthful and a little cheeky, Cott works exceptionally well with all of his significant costars, but especially Clark, McGillan and Hudgens. It is perfectly plain why every woman in Paris wants him and every man in Paris wants to be him – Cott is magnetic and captivating throughout.
The reworkings of the score and book, together with Cott's powerfully persuasive and alluring performance, take most of the creaks out of Gigi and provide a convincing framework for its success.
There is a lot to love in this production; the creative team has delivered in spades and Clark, Hoty and McGillan shine as the experienced Broadway's stars they are. But Cott is a true, enduring star in the making and the whole evening is worth it to watch Cott's assured steps on that path.