Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2006
When you say the name Gigi people usually have rapturous responses linked directly to their memories of the 1958 musical film starring Leslie Caron, Hermione Gingold, and Maurice Chevalier. The music is so lovely, the Parisian scenery is so beautiful, Leslie Caron is so charming, etc. The stage musical, which had a very brief Broadway career in 1973, was an attempt to cash in on everyone’s fond feelings for the film, but it didn’t work. A film brought to life on the stage is invariably disappointing. You won’t get the authentic Parisian scenery or any of the original performers. All you are left with is the lovely Lerner and Loewe score…and the plot.
I am sure that Collette’s 1945 novella made some coherent point about the life of a professional French courtesan at the turn of the 20th century, but by the time it was thoroughly sanitized to pass the strict 1950’s Hollywood Production Code, it was stripped of any sense or purpose. In 21st century post-feminist America, the plot raises serious questions no matter which way you look at it, and presents no satisfactory answers. And how hard is it to hear Thank Heaven For Little Girls on a week when JonBenet Ramsey’s sweet little painted face is once again on every television screen and magazine cover? Ouch!
Gail, what are you babbling about? Gigi is a sweet story about a young girl coming of age and falling in love… Well, it would be sweet if the young girl in question (Jarusha Ariel in the title role) wasn’t born into a family of courtesans, a polite French term for high-class prostitutes or “kept women.” As soon as her great-aunt Alicia (Monica M. Wemitt) and grandmother Inez, aka Mamita, (Karla Shook) realize that she is attractive to her childhood friend, the wealthy sugar heir Gaston Lachilles (Sean Zimmerman), she becomes an item for sale to the highest bidder. And the young lovers are parted because she is more valuable in “mint condition” than slightly soiled. Yes, Gigi and Gaston are in love, but it is unsettling that Gaston’s first proposal to her is a monetary one. She reluctantly accepts because she loves him, but when he realizes that the only way he can truly “possess” her is through marriage he kneels before her, ring in hand, as the audience claps and true love triumphs over…over…what, exactly? Gigi would actually have more financial and legal rights as a kept woman under the contract so skillfully negotiated by Aunt Alicia than she would has a mere wife. This is a story of a young woman bought and sold, no matter which way you look at it. It is just dumb luck that the high bidder turns out to be the man she loves.
Okay, so we’re left with the score, which is still beautiful, and whatever performances and production values the Mac-Haydn can muster at the close of their 2006 season. Thankfully, the news on this front is very good. The Mac-Haydn has culled an excellent cast from their stable of stalwarts, and a new design team of Dana Kenn (sets) and Andrea Lenci (costumes), teamed with veteran Andrew Gmoser’s lights, has made the theatre look strikingly beautiful. Thank Heaven For Little Girls may not be on anyone’s hit parade right now, but the gorgeous sight of the Mac-Haydn company in shades of cream, beige, and pink cavorting under Gmoser’s bright white lights while the genial Michael Shiles croons to the adorable Alexa Lashway, a charming sprite of about four with golden curls and a determined way of skipping, is really breathtaking.
Also highly satisfying is seeing the well-oiled and very talented quartet of Wemitt, Karla Shook, Byron DeMent, and Sean Quinn harmonize over Gaston’s contract for Gigi. Again, the subject matter is distasteful, but the talent and energy on the stage, along with the ghastly irony of the foursome holding the contract aloft and singing the ultimate line “Gigi is finally in love!” is live theatre at its best.
Shiles is well-suited to the role of Honoré Lachilles, Gaston’s uncle and the show’s erstwhile narrator, a laidback and affable old roué who is glad he’s not young anymore. And while it is a crime to make the young and lovely Karla Shook play anyone’s grandmother, it is a treat to hear her team with Shiles on I Remember It Well. Wemitt is likewise too young to be the sister of anyone’s grandmother, but she plays the formidable Aunt Alicia with ruthless relish.
The last time Ariel and Zimmerman were paired, as Liat and Lt. Cable in South Pacific, I was less than thrilled with them, but here they are charming. Ariel is a truly beautiful young woman, in the willowy, swan-necked mode of Audrey Hepburn, who was the first actress ever to play Gigi on stage in the 1948 non-musical adaptation by Anita Loos. (Leslie Caron was the first London Gigi, and, when Hepburn was unavailable for the film, the role went to Caron.)
When Ariel makes her entrance on Zimmerman’s arm in full evening dress for Gaston and Gigi’s first public outing after their contract has been signed, she is beautiful beyond belief, and it is a beauty attained with little artifice. Zimmerman is also a strikingly handsome young man, and both are in fine voice here. But Zimmerman also brings vivid life to the flowering of Gaston’s true and honorable love for Gigi, an emotion very foreign to man given so much, so soon that he has become bored by life before he has really experienced it.
Stephen Bolte is hilarious as always in the minor role of Honoré’s valet Charles. He affects a slinky walk for his duties delivering billets-doux to Honoré’s amours that is as funny as it is indescribable.
Kelly Shook is wasted as Gaston’s mistress Liane D’Exelmans, a role she overplays terribly.
Before I go any further I will warn you that this show is filled with outrageous French accents, more Inspector Clouseau or Monty Python than anything a genuine English-speaking Frenchman or –woman would utter. I swear I heard DeMent pronounce the word “room” as “rume” in a manner that would have made Peter Sellers proud. In general, I am not a fan of Americans attempting sustained foreign accents on stage because they invariably do them badly, but here director Doug Hodge and his cast seem to have decided if they can’t do them well they’ll do them broadly, and for some silly reason it works.
Hodge has directed and choreographed the proceedings with verve giving this poor property a far better production than it deserves. Kenn’s murals depicting Parisian vistas and her internally illuminated art deco faux stained glass panels really do transform the Mac-Haydn. Combined with the dazzling costumes, colorful lights, and energetic performances, and this is probably the best production of a bad musical you will ever see.
Bottom Line: The score is lovely, the cast is lovely, the sets and costumes and lights are lovely – just ignore the plot and you’ll have a very enjoyable time at Gigi. Despite the distasteful subject matter at its core, the show is a faithful adaptation of Vincente Minelli’s squeaky clean film and is good fun for the whole family.
Gigi runs through September 3 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006