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Thank heaven they didn’t let a dirty old man sing that song again.
Director Eric Schaeffer’s much-buzzed-about revival of the 1958 movie musical Gigi opened last month at the Kennedy Center, and this version’s makeover starts with the opening number. In the film, a grinning, aging Maurice Chevalier sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” while les jeunes filles in frilly dresses scampered around him in a Parisian park. My mother claims that when she repeatedly watched the film while growing up in the 1960s, Chevalier was not considered creepy, but très debonair. We both lovingly recall my grandfather singing the song around the house as he cared for four daughters, then six granddaughters.
And yet, as I rewatched the movie last week to prepare for seeing Gigi at the Kennedy Center, the number struck me as undeniably gross.
There are no septuagenarian men crooning about little girls growing up in delightful ways in this immensely likable new Gigi; the smartest thing Schaeffer and his production team have done is reassign who sings what throughout the show. The dumbest thing he’s done? Jettison that gorgeous Parisian park.
Gigi the film was a success in part because it was such a spectacle, winning a then-record nine Oscars. The musical was written for the screen by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, still fresh off My Fair Lady’s Ascot glow. (A 1973 Broadway adaptation of Gigi would flop.) Going straight to MGM allowed the duo to create a Belle Époque epic that ran way over budget. In Gigi’s park scenes, dozens of horses pull carriages full of well-dressed courtesans. The parties at Maxim’s dance hall make the Moulin Rouge look like a bore. The indoor ice rink surrounded by champagne-sippers remains a cinematic marvel.
Schaeffer couldn’t compete. But surely he and designer Derek McLane could have come up with a set less generic than two winding staircases which could just as easily be dropped into a production of Mame, An Ideal Husband, or The Sound of Music. Pixelated clouds hover in the background, while a curved grid that resembles the underbelly of the Eiffel Tower hangs above the stage. To simulate changes of rooms, decorations and doorways occasionally drop in from the rafters.
The sets and staging have little flair, so it’s left to the actors to fizz, froth, and sparkle like Veuve Clicquot. By and large, they do. Tony winner Victoria Clark (A Light in the Piazza), as Mamita Alvarez, has the sort of soprano that’s worthy of a recital every time she opens her mouth. Dee Hoty plays her sister, Aunt Alicia, and together, midway through the show, they deliver “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” as a salute to their favorite mistress-in-training, Gigi. An even better duet is created when Clark joins Howard McGillin, in Chevalier’s Honore Lachaille role, to sing the still-clever ballad, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
The youthful Gigi, as you might have heard, is played by former teen poplet Vanessa Hudgens. How is she? Cute and spunky, but not much of a dancer and not nearly as good as her paramour Corey Cott (Newsies), who in this revamped version of the musical plays Gaston not as a rich, bored dandy, but as a wannabe engineer, eager to fund the latest in dirigible technology. British dramatist and screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) updated the book, and managed to retain the best zingers (“The only people who make love all the time are liars”) while reworking a thin, somewhat offensive (formerly, anyway) story into a delightful evening of entertainment.
A wealthy New York theater patron named Jenna Segal is leading the producing team, which does not include the Kennedy Center. From here, the musical goes off to Broadway, beginning previews March 19. “Say A Little Prayer for Her Tonight,” is the refrain Clark sings the night Gigi goes off to spend her first night with Gaston. In the film, a frightened Gigi sang “Sing a Prayer for Me” herself. Onstage now, it’s a much sweeter moment, but one that still doesn’t feel entirely right.
2700 F St. NW. $99-$150. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org