Disney starlet Vanessa Hudgens was recruited to add a special sheen to Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi — a blatant attempt to make this old-fashioned musical more appealing to a younger generation. The star of the Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise, Hudgens acquits herself ably in the role, but even with a few other modern twists added by director Eric Schaeffer and book adapter Heidi Thomas, Gigi still registers as a lower-caliber Broadway musical, and a lesser My Fair Lady — writers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s big hit that mightily overshadows it.
In fact, Gigi isn’t even as interesting as the problematic Little Dancer, the other world premiere musical the Kennedy Center staged this season. While no plans have been announced for a Broadway transfer of that notably original Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical more than two months after it closed, Gigi‘s transfer to New York’s Neil Simon Theatre next month was announced even before the short Kennedy Center engagement started.
That’s not to say the show — or at least this production — is without merit. In fact, anyone fine with style over substance will find much to love here. Derek McLane has created an extravagant set to rival Vincente Minnelli’s opulent, Oscar-winning 1958 movie musical version: resplendent with Eiffel Tower-inspired iron latticework in outdoor scenes and sumptuous drapery indoors. Catherine Zuber has designed glamorous costumes to match, and Natasha Katz (Follies, Aida) proves once again why she’s won numerous Tony Awards for her lighting design — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen richer shades of blue realized on a stage. Joshua Bergasse, known especially for his work on television, stirs up further interest with his deceptively light and charming choreography.
There are yet more praises to sing about this production, not least of which is the superb cast Schaeffer has assembled. Hudgens may be the tent pole star of the show, but the two women molding the young girl rule the stage: Victoria Clark as Gigi’s grandmother and caretaker Mamita, and Dee Hoty as Aunt Alicia. Their characters’ caution and counsel about the ways of the world for a girl may run contrary to what you know and believe, but you can’t help admiring the convictions and even chutzpah these actors bring to bear.
Aunt Alicia, for example, makes an impressionable influence when she tells Gigi early on that girls aren’t attractive to men if they’re seen deep in thought. By Act 2, Gigi lets her suitor Gaston (a fine Corey Cott) know in no uncertain terms that she’s one smart cookie — and ultimately, he likes the refreshing challenge she offers. Still, it’s never completely clear that Gigi sees much of anything attractive in him, other than the promise of fame and fortune. Nor is it clear that she’ll be satisfied with just that. She seems both ahead of her time, 20th-century Paris — but also far behind ours.
IF YOU THINK THE THREE LEADING actresses in Gigi are something, get a load of the triumvirate cast in the Folger Theatre’s Mary Stuart: Holly Twyford, Kate Eastwood Norris and Nancy Robinette. If you’ve partaken in any theater in D.C. over the past couple decades, you know these three, all previous Helen Hayes Award winners, are stage royalty.
And go figure: two of them are even playing queens. Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart is a 19th Century Shakespearean political drama about one of England’s most storied rivalries, that between Mary, Queen of Scots (Norris) and Queen Elizabeth I (Twyford). Catholic Mary is a threat to Protestant Queen Elizabeth’s reign, but her murder isn’t a clear way to eliminate the threat. Further complicating the case is the fact that the two are cousins — and both are, at base, sensible, feeling women. D.C. theater’s grand dame Robinette plays Mary’s attentive assistant while she’s imprisoned by Elizabeth in England.
Peter Oswald’s adaptation trims Schiller’s flowery language, though this Mary Stuart is still a tad long and wordy, clocking in at just under three hours. But it’s also one of the more compelling historical play productions I’ve seen, a credit to both Richard Clifford’s sharp eye in casting and directing and in Tony Cisek’s scenery — from the starkly dark tones in Mary’s prison to the bright gold leaf behind Elizabeth’s throne. And Mariah Hale’s glorious costumes put the characters in even starker relief. Mary is refined and regal, while Elizabeth looks overbearingly overdressed and tortured. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.
Mary Stuart (-1/2) runs to March 8 at Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $40 to $75. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.
Gigi () runs to Thursday, Feb. 12. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $45 to $150. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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