April 18, 2015

Ah Paree: "An American in Paris" and "Gigi"

Like most Americans, I’m a sucker for the mystique of Paris. And I’ve recently had the chance to overindulge that fascination by seeing the new productions of Gigi and An American in Paris that have opened on Broadway over the past two weeks. My verdict: comme ci comme ça.  

Gigi, a revisal of the 1973 Lerner & Loewe musical, has fared the worse with the big-gun critics (click here to see what some of them said). The show, as you probably know, is based on the French writer Colette’s novella about a girl raised to be a courtesan and the rich older man who falls for her harder than he thought he would.

A 1951 stage play of the story marked the debut of Audrey Hepburn and seven years later, Hollywood turned the tale into an Oscar-winning musical starring Leslie Caron.

Those are tough acts to follow. The '73 show flopped. Now the producers of this latest incarnation have put their hopes on the very slender shoulders of Vanessa Hudgens, who made her name as the star of Disney’s “High School Musical” TV and movie franchise.

Hudgens, now 26, began singing and dancing in local productions in her native California at age 8 (click here to read an interview with her) but she’s a creature of the “American Idol” generation that seems to believe volume can make up for emotion. 

And that comes off really badly when contrasted with the exquisite singing of Victoria Clark who plays Gigi’s still-stylish grandmother.

Yet, there’s a pluckiness about Hudgens that suits the character of the pixyish Gigi.  Plus she works so hard and looks so smashing in the dresses that Catherine Zuber has created for her (click here for a Q&A with the designer) that I found myself rooting for Hudgens. 

Director Eric Schaeffer and book writer Heidi Thomas have tried to ease the way by toning down the uncomfortable storyline that basically calls for Gigi’s grandmother and aunt to pimp the girl out. They've made their Gigi more feisty and narrowed the age gap between her and her suitor, played appealingly by Corey Cott (click here to read more about those changes).

And the performances by Clark and the amusing Dee Hoty as her money-minded aunt, Zuber’s costumes, the Art Nouveau-inspired set by Derek McLane and the choreography by Joshua Bergasse kept me from getting cranky. But they’re not enough to get me to recommend Gigi to others in this season which is plump with song and dance shows.

One of the most anticipated of those shows has been An American in Paris, a stage makeover of the Oscar-winning movie musical, which starred Caron and Gene Kelly as an ex-GI turned expat painter who becomes involved with two women—one an American heiress who can help his career and the other a local French woman who has entanglements of her own.

As it turns out Gigi’s book writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner also wrote the script for the Caron-Kelly movie, although the music was—and thanks to some added songs is even more so—all George and Ira Gershwin.  In another coincidence, Vincente Minnelli (yep, Liza’s dad) directed the film versions of both Gigi and An American in Paris (click here to read about that).

Like the new Gigi, the new American in Paris has had its script revised. In this case, the playwright Craig Lucas moves the setting closer to the end of World War II and interpolates issues like closeted homosexuality and the after effects of the Nazi occupation to add some emotional heft. But, as in the film, dance remains at the heart of the show, including the famous 14-minute dream ballet that comes near its end.

The world-renowned ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon does double duty as director and choreographer and he realizes his clear vision for the show, which includes casting it with real ballet dancers (click here to read an interview with him). 

Both Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, as the painter; and the gamine Leanne Cope, a corp member with London’s Royal Ballet, as his French love, sing well enough but their dancing is spectacular and is probably the reason the show has gotten so much praise (click here to read some of those reviews).

Now here's where I have to own up to philistine status and say that I felt there was too much dancing. So much so that it undercut the cathartic power of that beautiful final ballet.

But there are other reasons to enjoy what it shaping up to be the snob-hit musical of the season. Bob Crowley’s set performs a magical dance of its own, with scrims shifting here and there around the stage, virtually flirting with the smart video projections created by 59 Productions (click here for more about that).

And there are some fine supporting performances from Max von Essen and Brandon Uranowitz as the other men in the French girl’s life and, especially, from Jill Paice, who makes the heiress a real person instead of a cartoon villainess.  Finally, of course, it’s always, always great to hear Gershwin.

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