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First Nighter: Little Girl "Gigi" Does Not Grow Up on Broadway in a Most Delightful Way

04/08/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

The movie Gigi with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe and direction by Vincente Minnelli won the 1958 Oscar as best movie. That was one of nine -- count 'em, 9 -- Oscars handed the box-office hit. Others included best screenplay adaptation (Lerner), best song (Lerner and Loewe's title tune), best costumes (Cecil Beaton) and best direction (Minnelli, of course).

The reference to the release from Arthur Freed's incomparable MGM unit is recorded here as preamble to the unhappy news that a woefully cheap travesty of the gloriously romantic film has now opened at the Neil Simon.

I mean "cheap" figuratively, as actual money was clearly spent on the production, especially on costumer Catherine Zuber's evocation of Paris, 1900. Zuber's work, however, is the only more than acceptable element here, although good as she always is, she's no Cecil Beaton in this instance.

Why the numerous producers bothered is the first big question mark. Ostensibly, this Gigi could be called a revival. A previous Gigi was brought to the stage in 1973. Running for only 103 performances, it was a financial flop -- and that was when Lerner, who died in 1986, and Loewe, who died in 1988, were on hand to guide the transition.

No such overseers are apparently available now, which suggests that calling this Gigi a revival is inaccurate. "Revisal" is the proper word for what's been done to Colette's 1944 novel by way of the play and then the fabulous (in a couple sense of that word) Lerner-Loewe treatment.

Forget asking why anyone with much sense would go about reviving a flop of that magnitude. The answer seems to be that these benighted producers thought the only thing necessary to make a theatrical version fly was to transform it. They called in British television writer Heidi Thomas, whose outstanding Call the Midwife series in now its third PBS season.

Evidently doing the producers' bidding as carefully as she could, Thomas has gone about jiggling Colette's story of a young girl being trained as a courtesan and a rich family friend who grow over time into lovers. But the misguided Thomas only succeeds in denaturing Colette so that Gigi (Vanessa Hudgens), now older, and eventual swain Gaston Lachaille (Corey Cott), now younger, progress to a happy ending with any number of destructive changes to the story.

There's no reason to itemize the myriad unfortunate variations, although it's necessary to mention some that will likely both infuriate and amuse fans of the film. The most hilarious as well as the most idiotic is taking the song "Thank Heavens for Little Girls" away from the movie's male narrator (Maurice Chevalier then, Howard McGillin here). Apparently, these Gigi thinkers worried that the jubilant ditty could be considered the musings of a pedophile -- this despite the lyric "Thank heaven for little girls/They grow up in the most delightful way."

If you've stopped laughing at that blatant insult to Lerner, then just be aware that Madame Alvarez (Victoria Clark) and Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty) sing the paean to future women and that Clark, and not Hudgens, sings "Say a Prayer" (with a pronoun-switched first chorus and a second chorus written by Thomas). Gaston's previous amorous connection Liane d'Exelmans (Steffanie Leigh) offers a new song called "A Toujours" that appears to have been composed on an unusually bad Lerner-Loewe day.

Among the many other egregious "fixes" is the scene leading up to the ending when the lovers finally unite. It has to do with our living nowadays in a politically correct proactive-heroine day. Previously, when Gaston takes the now sophisticated Gigi to Maxim's (remember Beaton's magnificent white gown with a blackbird at each shoulder?), she performs a courtesan's duties expertly. Seeing that, Gaston recoils and pulls her, uncomprehendingly out of the place and the milieu. Under Thomas, Gigi asks to leave.

The moment is comparable to the recent, and so-called, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, when Cinderella, rather than inadvertently stepping out of her glass slipper as she flees the place at midnight, instead talks it off for the Prince to retrieve. The damage that politically correctness has done to the arts only worsens as time goes on.

Who else suffers as the two-acts -- in which, don't you know? -- a can-can is inserted, because this is turn-of-the-century France. (What no Henri Toulouse-Lautrec passing through for a giggle?) Who else? Only about everyone connected with it, not least of whom are the players.

Clark shows off her clarion voice and otherwise does okay as Madame Alvarez, or Mamita. Dee Hoty is properly haughty as Aunt Alicia. McGillin smiles well as the compering Honoré Lachaille. His duet with Clarke on "I Remember It Well" is the one musical highlight. Cott does passably as Gaston, but it seems odd that when singing "Gigi" about his inamorata having grown into a woman, he behaves as if he's reverting to an adolescent boy.

Blame that on director Eric Schaeffer or on choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who did such spanking-smart work with the On the Town revival earlier this season but sticks too closely to stereotypical movement on this assignment. Music director Greg Jarrett has problems making the most of a sumptuous score with only a dozen or so musicians.

Designer Derek McLane goes art nouveau by having the entire enterprise unfold in front of a seeming cast-iron arch familiar from the Eiffel Tower base. Immediately before it he's placed a staircase that squats unmovably throughout the two acts. This is a particular bother when the second-act action begins in Trouville, and Gigi warbles about never wanting to return to Paris. Oops, isn't she singing in front of that same old Paris view?

And what about Hudgens making a Broadway debut in her post-High School Musical days? Firstly, congratulations to her for taking on a role associated in the mind of many a Gigi fan with Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. She sings perfectly well and dances nicely. She does everything competently, but as Gigi she doesn't have the essential ingredient: charm. If it comes to that, this whole Gigi is lacking in charm, if not nerve.

It's curious that on the day Gigi officially begins, the Yale School of Drama announces two new scholarships as gifts from the Frederick Loewe Foundation. It's a safe bet that neither of them will go to anyone connected with this enterprise.