In My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) recounted the tale of a guttersnipe girl cynically prepared for high society; in its sort-of-sequel Gigi, they manufactured another cloudy tale of social engineering, as the innocent heroine is steered towards the life of a courtesan in fin-de-siecle Paris, only to be rescued by true romance.
Gigi was a wonderful 1958 film, based on a novella by Colette, imperishably performed by Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan, but the lacklustre 1985 London premiere of the subsequent 1973 stage musical did not bode well for the revival in Regent’s Park. Timothy Sheader’s production, however, is elegant, colourful and beautifully acted, and restores the harsh, exploitative edge of Gigi’s grooming.
And in Gigi herself, Sheader has revealed a delightful new star in Lisa O’Hare, a recent Mary Poppins in the West End, who is sweet without being cloying; she sings like an angel and moves like a gazelle. She grows from a recalcitrant sixteen year-old to an expressive, strong-willed young woman; her supervising Higgins and Pickering, if you like, are her grande dame Aunt Alicia and her bustling grandmother, Mamita, who works backstage at the Opera Comique.
In John Dexter’s London premiere, these roles were taken by Sian Phillips and Beryl Reid. No disrespect to those great ladies, but Linda Thorson and Millicent Martin are infinitely sharper. And in the Maurice Chevalier role of the old roué Honore, we have Topol, a little slow on opening night, but charming as ever in his sideways-on confidentiality and laconic delivery of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I Remember it Well,” that exercise in amnesiac nostalgia undercut by Mamita’s hard-nosed version of the same affair. Honore’s wealthy nephew Gaston (a slightly stiff but well-voiced Thomas Borchert) is both object and catalyst in Gigi’s education.
Yannis Thavoris’s design is a curved steel walkway and two art deco poster-bill kiosks that open into cafe interiors or the seaside boardwalk at Trouville, where the company decamps for a weekend at the Grand Hotel (“I Never Want to Go Home Again”). Stephen Mear’s ingenious, inventively simple and stylish choreography keeps the cast on their toes, bobbing and bouncing along with the music, while the costumes fully convey the style and glamour of a belle époque that masked the sexual trafficking of young women with the swish of “The Night They Invented Champagne,” or an orgiastic hoe-down at Maxim’s, the centre of this little hedonistic universe.