Monday, April 13, 2015

Broadway Reviews—Vanessa Hudgens in "Gigi" and the Gershwins' "An American in Paris"

Book/lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner;  adapted by Heidi Thomas; music by Frederick Loewe
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; directed by Eric Schaeffer
Performances through October 4, 2015
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

An American in Paris
Book by Craig Lucas; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; music by George Gershwin
Choreographed and directed by Christopher Wheeldon
Performances through November 22, 2015
Palace Theatre, Broadway & 47th Street, New York, NY

It's only a coincidence, but two musicals opening on Broadway were once '50s movie musicals directed by Vincente Minnelli: the six-time Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and nine-time Oscar-winning Gigi (1958). 

Cott and Hudgens in Gigi (photo: Margot Schulman)
Gigi was once a Broadway flop in 1973, when book writer-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe expanded the original movie into a stage version with additional songs. The new Gigi has an adaptation by Heidi Thomas that de-fangs the premise from French novelist Colette's 1944 story: the idea of a 15-year-old girl being prepped as a courtesan for rich older men won't fly in 2015, so it's been entirely flattened, its bubblyness excised, and the result, while entertaining, is like drinking sparkling cider, not Moet et Chandon, on New Year's Eve.

The retooling of Gigi was obviously done with an eye on the box office: it would be unseemly for preteens and teens to see High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens onstage and their parents having to explain lecherous oldsters ogling her. So Gigi has become a quite independent (and legal) 18 and is wooed by a Gaston barely a few years older; this makes for a cute rom-com a la High School Musical but destroys Gigi's going up against a society that allows its young women to become men's playthings.

More damagaing is director Eric Schaeffer's production, which is about as French as Starbucks coffee: although Derek McLane's belle epoque sets dazzle and Catherine Zuber's elegant costumes catch the eye, the hard-working cast huffs and puffs without ever finding that certain je ne sais quoi that should never be so strained. To start from the bottom, steely-voiced Corey Cott's Gaston is so whiny and charisma-starved that it's impossible to believe him as Paris's most eligible bachelor. 

Likewise, Howard McGillin is too bland as his uncle Honore; he has none of Maurice Chevalier's effortless urbanity in the movie. In his defense, McGillin doesn't get to sing the movie Honore's signature song, "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," which has been given instead to Gigi's conniving grandmother Mamita and Aunt Alicia so the old man is no longer seen as a charming pedophile. The irrepressible Victoria Clark and Dee Hoty give much needed oomph and humor to Mamita and Alicia, even if Hoty overplays a bit too much. 

How is Hudgens as Gigi? She's pretty, perky, plucky, polished and professional. She sings well, moves stylishly, looks sumptuous in her gorgeous gowns, and even does an impressive cartwheel in one of choreographer Joshua Bergasse's too-busy dance numbers. It's not her fault that she plays the watered-down 21st century Gigi perfectly: her fans will love it, while those partial to Lerner & Loewe (even though most of these songs are second-rate, especially coming soon after their classic My Fair Lady) probably won't.

A scene from An American in Paris (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Far more satisfying is An American in Paris, which has staggeringly inventive choreography by the show's director, Christopher Wheeldon. Like Minnelli's movie, which starred Gene Kelly in the story of former American GI Jerry Mulligan—who stays in the French capital after World War II to be a painter, fall in love and dance to Gershwin music—Wheeldon's Paris is a vivacious delight from the start.

Craig Lucas's book retains the outlines of the movie's plot. Jerry falls for the lovely Lise, a shop clerk who here wants to be a ballet dancer—as does Adam Hochberg, an American expatriate tasked with composing a short dance work for Lise at the behest of Milo Davenport, a young American woman with money to throw at French culture, and who has own designs on Jerry's talent. Then there's Henri Baurel, whom the two American men befriend, who's trying to launch a song-and-dance career without his highbrow parents noticing, and who is (unbeknownst to both Jerry and Adam) kinda sorta engaged to Lise.

Lucas' book is far more overstuffed than it needs to be, but luckily Wheeldon covers the stage with so many visual and dancing delights that it doesn't really matter. It all starts with Bob Crowley's freewheeling and mobile set designs, an endless variety of panels and mirrors that are rolled, pulled and pushed around the stage, morphing into various Parisian landmarks and, with the help of 59 Productions' animated, impressionistic projections and Natasha Katz's resourceful lighting, can at one remove stand in for a romantic walk along the Seine or, in the musical's disturbing opening, the end of the Nazi occupation and the return of a free Paris. 

Throughout all of this visual ingenuity—which runs dry in the second act, most likely to concentrate on the climactic ballet of the title—Wheeldon does not skimp on the dancing. His incredibly busy but always original choreography rarely comes up for air, especially in such exciting set pieces as the moody opening number set to Gershwin's Concerto in F or the first act's closing number to Gershwin's boisterous Second Rhapsody and Cuban Overture, not to mention the beautifully structured final ballet that smartly avoids what Gene Kelly did so sensationally in the movie. Likewise, the many song interludes, which include such Gershwin staples as "S'Wonderful," "The Man I Love" and "Shall We Dance?" are staged stylishly, and are greatly helped by the intoxicating arrangements by Rob Fisher.

The large and talented supporting cast comprises such first-rate performers as Brandon Urbanowitz as self-deprecating narrator Adam, Jill Paice as Milo, Max von Essen as Henri, and a scene-stealing Veanne Cox as Henri's snooty mom. But, as good as they are, the leads are even better. Robert Fairchild from the New York City Ballet plays Jerry and Leanne Cope from London's Royal Ballet plays Lise: that they are both phenomenal dancers is no surprise; that they are also exceptionally good singers and gifted actors is the icing on the very tasty cake that is An American in Paris.

No comments: