How do you solve a problem like "Gigi"?
With its glamorous Parisian backdrops, lilting score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and Academy Award pedigree, Vincente Minnelli's 1958 movie musical might seem like the perfect Golden Age bonbon to tempt the tourist masses into a night of expensive theater.
But "Gigi" the musical didn't fare all that well in its 1973 Broadway premiere, and reviving the work today is a risky proposition: One false move and producers could find themselves the subject of an embarrassing Vanity Fair exposé or, worse yet, a nightly Nancy Grace harangue.
The trouble is the story, based on a novella by the brilliantly risqué Colette. The tale of an exploited minor, even a laughing, skipping, giddily complicit one, is no longer considered a proper subject for musical comedy.
For the new Broadway production, which opened Wednesday at the Neil Simon Theatre with Vanessa Hudgens as the millennial-generation Gigi, the book has been overhauled by the English screenwriter and playwright Heidi Thomas. Best known for the British TV series "Call the Midwife," Thomas has taken on a project that entails even more complicated obstetrics.
The good news is that the baby survived the difficult birth. The bad news is that it has two heads, neither very functional.
Director Eric Schaeffer (who staged the 2011 Broadway revival of "Follies" that came to the Ahmanson) tries to distract us from the way political correctness has sanitized the story and made it soppier while lessening the stakes. The production's pacing is brisk, and the spirited choreography by Joshua Bergasse occasionally turns acrobatic.
But a solution to "Gigi" has not been found.
Before watching the movie with a friend who had never seen it, I tried to summarize the plot with a straight face: "It's about this bored French playboy —rich, rich, rich — who has his eye on an underage, free-spirited mademoiselle being 'groomed' by her aunt and grandmother to be his courtesan. But it's really an old-fashioned romance in disguise."
This description alarmed my lawyer friend, who is in the habit of taking criminal offenses seriously. I held my breath as Maurice Chevalier's sang "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," but somehow we made it to the happy ending. This is when Louis Jourdan's Gaston, rather than becoming a registered sex offender, asks Leslie Caron's Gigi for her hand in marriage, thus making an honest woman of the teen and delighting her avaricious relatives.
One way to reconceive the show would have been to strip the musical down and play up the mercenary harshness and menace. But that would probably go counter to the champagne-fueled levity of musical numbers evoking gay Paree at the decadent start of the 20th century.
The score may be a full level below what Lerner and Loewe accomplished in "My Fair Lady," but it is marvelously buoyant by any normal standard. The mood can grow philosophical, as when the older characters reflect on the romantic mayhem of their younger years in "I Remember It Well" and "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore." But the ironies are playful, not punishing — the songs take in the human comedy; they don't skewer it.
In any case, you don't cast the heroine of the "High School Musical" franchise as Gigi if you want to give the show a "Cabaret" makeover. (For that you cast Emma Stone.) Hudgens, a dark-haired waif with a pretty if not particularly distinctive singing voice, makes a winning first impression as the character whose age has been clarified as 18 for obvious reasons.
Unfortunately, the longer Hudgens is on stage, the more superficial her Gigi seems. She can deliver an image of adolescent abandon, but her emotions are dictated entirely by the plot. Her acting is all romantic pabulum — dull sweetness, exaggerated gaiety, trumped-up anxiety leading directly to amorous ecstasy.
Thomas' update doesn't give Hudgens much to work with. Just as in the film, this Gigi is at once independent and obedient. But the threat of this adorable young woman falling into a morally hazardous life has been defanged.
Gigi's grandmother, Mamita (Victoria Clark, soaring operatically as always), doesn't want anything amiss to happen to her beloved granddaughter. Wildly materialist Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty), who gives Gigi rigorous instruction in the art of seeming like a lady while running a not-very-ladylike business, only wants to be sure that the girl doesn't get a bum financial deal.
The boldest stroke of this production is to give "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" to these two women, who perform it as a duet — Clark's Mamita all maternal concern, Hoty's Alicia all brassy worldliness. With these protective lionesses standing guard, Gigi's soul is never endangered.
Making matters more vanilla, Corey Cott's young-looking Gaston seems almost as innocent as Gigi. There's little naughty energy when the two get together to sip champagne, play cards and bicker like kids at recess — they might as well be in a "High School Musical" reboot. Cott's blandness goes away when he sings, but his Gaston is yawningly on the up and up.
Howard McGillin's Honoré is hardly a roué in the Maurice Chevalier mold. McGillin has a seductive voice, but there's little trace of the veteran ladies' man in his fastidious portrait of a bachelor uncle. (The sexlessness of this revival makes me wonder whether the producers are gunning for Hudgens' teen following.)
Visually, the production isn't quite the knockout one might have expected. Corners are cut. Catherine Zuber's costumes don't have the transformative effect on Hudgens' diminutive Gigi. Derek McLane's modestly attractive Parisian sets look as though they were built to tour on a three-star budget.
It's the music that tempts us back to "Gigi," and hearing the score cascade from a live orchestra (under the assured music supervision of James Moore) is an undeniable treat. But in an attempt to bring the story up to 21st century standards, the new "Gigi" only seems more dated.