Amy Ellen Richardson
It may just be me, but this year there seem to be more pieces than ever billing themselves as the perfect show for the summer.
In fairness, Regent’s Park has a particular right to sell its productions as such, since its Open Air Theatre was designed specifically for long, balmy summer evenings. However, as with Jude Kelly’s The Wizard of Oz currently on at the Royal Festival Hall, there is something very formulaic about the thinking behind staging Gigi: pick a film everyone knows, bill the show as a magical evening, and watch the crowds roll in.
But whilst Oz, for all its faults, had enough about it to make for a memorable night, it is harder to say the same for this production. Based on Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette’s 1944 novel, the show tells of an ever evolving relationship between Parisian man of fashion, Gaston, and the young girl, Gigi, who is being groomed for a career as a grande cocette.
The trouble is that this production doesn’t appreciate how the world has moved on from both 1901, when the piece is set, and 1958, when the film was made. Using Lerner and Loewe’s 1973 stage adaptation of their own film, it firmly grounds the action in Paris in 1901 (the courtesans’ costumes and striped bathing suits are exquisite) without appreciating the consequences of doing so. The whole point of Gigi is that it entertains us by disturbing us in a rather light-hearted way. We laugh at the characters who are generally egoistic and crass, whilst appreciating that this says something very dark about human nature that people in any age will, if they can, behave in such a way.
But this production fails to convey the universal points, by not realising that it requires a more sophisticated approach to bring them out in the modern world. As such, the show is reduced to being purely a piece of light entertainment, and hardly fares well on that front either. With the clear aim of being colourful, ensemble members frequently grace the stage as onlookers, but they don’t always do a lot when they’re there. A visual experience is clearly striven for with the frequent dancing, but most of it turns out to be unimaginative. That much of the movement is sedate may also be a consequence of the choice of costume since there’s only so much one can do in a long flowing dress.
Lisa O’Hare as Gigi felt too much like a modern teenager. She grasped Gigi’s youthful excitement at the company of the older Gaston, but, with girls enjoying more freedom today than a century ago, she seemed to know too much about the world. Too often, she came across as the one in control, setting the boundaries and calling the shots. Nevertheless, once you took her on those terms, her performance in The Night They Invented Champagne was enjoyable.
Topol (Tevye in the film, Fiddler on the Roof) was a captivating Honore who interacted well with the audience, making every member feel as if he was addressing them personally. Nevertheless, whilst his solo I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore was strong, he was less good at commanding the stage in those numbers where he was supported by a large chorus. Linda Thorson and Millicent Martin were good as the eccentric Aunt Alicia and Mamita, but even here they seemed to do no more than many skilled actresses might have done with such wonderful material.
Happily, a few songs, and, in particular, I Remember it Well, were nailed, meaning that this production was by no means bad just lacklustre. And since it is flare and energy that make a summer show a summer show, if that’s the experience you’re after, there are plenty of other things to choose from right now (not just Oz). Of course, if you specifically want to experience Gigi under the stars, then you may wish to go. A cheaper option, on the other hand, might be to rent the DVD, charge up your laptop and watch the film in the garden.