Riding on the crest of a wave after the hands-down success of My Fair Lady (1956), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned again to source material that portrayed the transformation of a young girl into a lady.
But Gigi, based on Colette's novella, is different in that its focus is on sex as a commodity, and the final curtain delivers a happy ending in the form of matrimony: both of these facts are in sharp contrast to the restraint and ambiguity of the ending of My Fair Lady.
The musical portrays the coming of age of Gigi, a young girl who is born into a family of courtesans and is raised by her Aunt Alicia and grandmother to be one herself but who desires true love and marriage. She finds it in the form of the handsome Gaston Lachailles, whose inclination to follow the lifestyle of his uncle Honoré, an old roué, has led to perpetual boredom; the sincerity of Gigi provides him with contentment.
For me, the 1958 film of Gigi is the finest musical written expressly for the movies, though others will have their favourites; a dream cast, strong script and score, expert direction and location filming are irresistible. The 1973 Broadway stage version, however, is quite a different matter. Lerner completely overhauled his book; two songs were removed; and five new ones were added. The result was a disappointing run of 103 performances. The following decade, an American tour (with Louis Jourdan swapping his film role of Gaston for the older part of his uncle, Honoré) never made it to Broadway; and although the 1985 London production ran for seven months, the piece has never really had as huge a success on the stage as it did in its multi-Oscar-winning film version.
The Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park has a reputation for fine productions of classic musicals, and the choice of Gigi for this year's offering was inspired. Artistic Director Timothy Sheader's production (designed by Yannis Thavoris) is relatively straightforward, its only noticeable conceit being the presence of members of the ensemble to eavesdrop on even the most intimate scenes. This illustrates the gossiping Parisian society that both enables Gaston's lifestyle and simultaneously frustrates it; occasionally this is overdone, however, and it is sometimes distracting to have so many people present during an intense and personal conversation. Two dome-like structures reminiscent of Parisian pissoires are covered in posters advertising Lachailles' sucre – sugar is the family business – as well as Maxim's, the setting for several scenes, and Trouville, the location of the Act I finale; these constructions open out to reveal the interiors of the apartments of Mamita (Gigi's grandmother) and Aunt Alicia.
Stephen Mear's choreography is mostly excellent, bringing Paris to life with a relatively small ensemble; however, Gigi does not naturally provide many situations for dancing and at times these seem very contrived, notably during 'The Night They Invented Champagne'. The latter song is also the worst instance of the work of Steven Edis on the score, where what is normally a trio segues unnaturally into a full production number involving a rhythmically-contorted choral arrangement with which the ensemble seemed uncomfortable at the performance I attended. I also found Edis' orchestrations generally disappointing and the weakest aspect of the production, though in part the problem was simply that the lush, string-heavy film soundtrack has been allotted to only nine musicians, including only a single violin, which is not much to play with; I didn't like the overly prominent double keyboard combination or the use of a guitar, which is hardly the kind of sound one would expect from Gigi.
It also didn't help that Phil Bateman's leadership of the band was often sluggish and lacking in the kind of nuance and pace that slightly inferior numbers such as 'In this Wide, Wide World' (rejected from My Fair Lady, when it had been entitled 'There's a Thing Called Love') and 'The Earth and Other Minor Things' – both replacements for Gigi's two main songs in the film – require to avoid becoming a little tedious. Nevertheless, the park is never an easy place in which to conduct a musical, and the rendition of the complicated ensemble 'The Contract' was secure and for me the highlight of the evening.
It was inspired of the Open Air Theatre to hire Topol to fill the shoes of Maurice Chevalier in the role of Honoré: it was written for a veteran foreign musical comedy actor, and the star of Fiddler on the Roof on both stage and screen fits the bill ideally. Added to that, Topol has the same kind of charm, charisma and debonair manner that Chevalier brought to the part on screen. Though he fluffed the odd line and was slow in delivering several others, the actor was so much in his element, whether jumping from a chair during a wittily-delivered 'I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore' or breezing merrily down the elevated walkway that covered the back of the stage to sing the famous opener 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls', that one scarcely noticed.
Also excellent was Millicent Martin (another stage veteran and a good pairing for Topol), as Mamita, bringing both humanity and discipline to her role as Gigi's surrogate parent. Nevertheless, I felt she was very slightly overshadowed by Linda Thorson (of The Avengers fame), whose vigour, excellent diction, projection and comic timing made Aunt Alicia even more active a participant in Gigi's upbringing than she is in the film version. Perhaps she lacks the hauteur and cut in the voice of Isabel Jeans in the movie, but Thorson's indomitability lent credence to Alicia's reputation as the successful courtesan to a dozen kings. She also led the performance of 'The Contract' with impressive confidence and neat musical timing, aided and abetted by the brilliant Paul Bentley as Dufresne. The latter is Topol's understudy and would probably do an excellent job if he had to take over.
The production is let down, however, by Thomas Borchert and Lisa O'Hare, far from ideally cast as Gaston and Gigi. Borchert lacked the suave sophistication for the role, and although he is Germany's leading musical theatre actor, his strident singing voice seemed stylistically ill-matched to Gaston's part. O'Hare was competent but rather ordinary in the title role. Lacking the gamine quality of Leslie Caron in the film version, O'Hare exaggerated her body language during the scenes where Gigi is immature, and then seemed too cold and charmless in the second act.
Along with the delivery of the music, the only real problem with this production is that one never gets a sense of the inexorable pull between Gigi and Gaston – which is, after all, what the show is all about. Nevertheless, the chance to see old hands like Topol, Thorson and Martin so much in their element makes the production hugely enjoyable.
Previous reviews of musical theatre:
The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall
Street Scene with The Opera Group
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO