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Review Round-up: Thank Heaven for Open Air Gigi

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Chaim Topol (also known as just Topol) returned to the London stage last week (14 August 2008, previews from 6 August) to take on the role of bemused narrator Honore in the first major London revival of Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi, which runs at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 13 September 2008 (See 1st Night Photos, 15 Aug 2008).

Topol is joined on the stage by fellow West End legend Millicent Martin, as Mamita, the grandmother of Lisa O\'Hare’s titular Gigi a teenage girl being groomed by her grandmother and aunt to become a courtesan. The cast also features German stage star Thomas Borchert as Honore’s nephew Gaston Lachaille, the bachelor and bon vivant who becomes captivated by Gigi as she matures from wild adolescent to poised young lady, and Linda Thorson as Gigi’s aunt.

Gigi is based on the 1945 French novel by Colette, which was made into a French film in 1948, then adapted as a stage play in 1951, with a Broadway production starring Audrey Hepburn, which was then adapted as an Oscar-winning 1958 movie musical, starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. Fifteen years later, the musical crossed back over to the stage, opening on Broadway in 1978. The original West End production opened at the Lyric Theatre in 1985.

In Regent’s Park, Gigi is directed by artistic director Timothy Sheader as part of his inaugural season in the job, designed by Yannis Thavoris and choreographed by Stephen Mear, with lighting by Simon Mills, sound by Mike Walker, orchestrations by Steven Edis and musical direction by Philip Bateman. It’s the final production in this summer’s season (See News, 11 Jan 2008). The score includes “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, “It’s a Bore”, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and “I Remember It Well”.

Thank heaven for Gigi. Generally, critics were far from bored during Sheader’s “elegant, colourful and beautifully acted” revival of a “witty, camp, and extremely entertaining” musical. The actors also fared well, although critics could not agree on which one stole the limelight, with some praising Lisa O\'Hare’s “delightfully truculent Gigi”, while others felt that Linda Thorson’s “stylish” performance led the way. There was also praise for Topol, who was credited with a warm affection and charm. Some critics suggested that Gigi “will never be one of the great musicals”, but there was an overall feeling that this production “moved beyond the stylised glamour of the famous MGM movie to something rather more interesting”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Timothy Sheader’s production … 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 16-year-old to an expressive, strong-willed young woman … 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’ … Yannis Thavoris’ 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.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “If the musical stands up well in Regent\'s Park, it is because of the easy familiarity of the Lerner and Loewe songs and because Timothy Sheader\'s production is cast from exceptional strength … Topol not only avoids the leering suggestiveness Chevalier brought on screen to ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’, he even implies there is a faint sadness about this ageing drone who missed his one real chance of marital happiness. Indeed, the highlight of the evening is when Topol and the excellent Millicent Martin, as Gigi\'s grandmother and the genuine love of Honoré\'s life, join forces in ‘I Remember It Well’: a classic statement of the fallibility of memory that is like a lyric encapsulation of a Pinter play. The young lovers are also refreshingly good. Lisa O\'Hare … easily captures Gigi\'s transformation from sailor-suited tomboy to woman of poise and sophistication. Thomas Borchert, a leading man in German musical theatre, takes the Gallic starch out of the insufferable, world-weary Gaston. And there is stylish support from Linda Thorson as Gigi\'s cosmopolitan aunt … Sheader\'s production also does full justice to the sly wit of Lerner\'s book.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars)– “Topol … seems to plead our indulgence as he rattles through the unfortunately titled ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ and he makes an entertaining old roué with his infectious beam and his gouty tremble – even if his singing diction sometimes suffers in its Hebrew-accented attempt to convey Frenchness. But the strength of Timothy Sheader’s production is not the attention- grabbing casting … so much as the confidence with which it displays the grubby underbelly of belle époque Paris … Yannis Thavoris’ inventive set combines an elegant footbridge – against the natural Regent’s Park backdrop – with the traditional advertising columns of a Paris street. These cleverly unwind to form Mamita’s apartment, Aunt Alicia’s mirrored boudoir or the swinging Maxim’s club. As a sailor-suited Gigi, Lisa O\'Hare has to convince a modern audience she has no inkling of sex as she turns 16, but she pulls it off ... The stand-out performance is from Thorson as Aunt Alicia, a gloriously ruthless diva with just a hint of trying-too-hard in her vowels, dressed in a seriously shocking pink that makes Mamita’s scarlet look positively restrained … I came away wondering why on earth I ever thought this musical was bland.”
    • Liz Hoggard in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Gigi is witty, camp, extremely entertaining. Set in 1901, the new production brilliantly captures the whole belle époque – the champagne, the parties, the trips to the seaside. Thanks to designer Yannis Thavoris’ cartoon set, Paris becomes a satellite of Maxim’s famous restaurant. Nobody works (‘Occupation? 100 percent leisure’); infidelity is a joke; mistresses change hands more often than Alsace Lorraine. And sex is a transaction between (powerful) men and (impoverished) women. The cast is borderline eccentric — with Oscar winner Topol as Honoré (the Chevalier role), Millicent Martin as Gigi’s grandmother and Linda Thorson as her scheming aunt. But suspend your snobbery: this is pantomime with an edge … You hope that Aunt Alicia’s mercenary advice (‘It’s easier to imagine wonderland with a floor-plan in your hand’) is ironic. But when they auction Gigi off to Gaston — with a celebratory dance — it is genuinely shocking. It is only thanks to Lisa O\'Hare’s delightfully truculent Gigi that we care what happens to her. But in the last scene, Gaston (a winning Thomas Bouchert) sees himself for the shallow player he really is … We’ve moved beyond the stylised glamour of the famous MGM movie to something rather more interesting.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) – “Topol’s attempts to match Maurice Chevalier, who took the role in the film, aren’t so successful. He trundles about the Regent’s Park stage in his awful mauve jacket, leering at the ladies, rumbling out lines like, ‘My dear child, you are safe in my hands, but I can’t vouch for the rest of me’, half-visibly winking at the audience, and exuding what he presumably thinks is Gallic charm but is actually a grisly winsomeness … Lerner and Loewe saw Gigi as a thematically similar follow-up to their My Fair Lady, and it has some good hums to offer, among them ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’ and that undeniably witty exchange of clashing romantic memories, ‘I Remember It Well’. But it’s not quite as sophisticated as its creators thought. Myself, I tired both of their knowing tributes to the gay Paree, whose epicentre is Maxim’s, and of the ladies and gents who endlessly patrol the stage in their belle epoque costumes, adding period prettiness to Timothy Sheader’s slick revival. Still, Thorson makes a fine monster in her magenta dress, snapping out lines such as (of Gigi): ‘She’s gone from puberty to senility without a stop on the way.’ And O’Hare is sweetly demure after her Gigi has hit adulthood.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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