Bringing up the dramatic rear in this year's season at the Open Air Theatre is Lerner and Loewe's musical 'Gigi', known perhaps to most of us thanks to the1958 film of the same name starring Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron.
There's always a musical at the Open Air theatre each season, and even with a change of artistic director this year, the tradition has been sensibly maintained. But 'Gigi' is something of a brave choice because of the nature of the subject matter. The plot is about a young girl who is being groomed for a future - or 'career' - as a courtesan. Now in the early years of the 21st century this topic might not seem instantly appealing, or politically correct. I don't think, however, that feminists of even females in general need worry about this musical undermining their position in society. In fact it may well do quite the reverse because the women are portrayed as being shrewd, businesslike, and altogether more sensible, realistic and intelligent than the men who, by comparison, appear weak, ineffectual and rather pitiful.
Set in Paris in 1901, 'Gigi' gives us a glimpse into the world of incredibly wealthy men who can find little more to do with their time and money than find mistresses and quickly tire of them, then swap them or find a new one. It's Honore who describes this world at the start of the show. His tone is jovially self-mocking. Honore – approaching the end of his life – still loves women, good food, idleness and Paris, but is under no illusions about the morality of his lifestyle.
Gigi, on the other hand, is in the early part of her life – a teenager. She's being taught by her Aunt (aided and abetted by her Grandmother) to be a courtesan. Aunt Alicia knows all about the courtesan business and is adept at negotiating contracts. Courtesans of the time could apparently command incredibly large sums for their services and many became hugely rich in their own right.
The link between Honore and Gigi is Gaston, a well-off young man who is bored with the life he leads even though he doesn't seem that anxious to turn from it. He gets advice from the more experienced Honore, but is also a friend of Gigi's family and often visits. You don't need binoculars or the mind of Confucius to see where this uncluttered story is leading.
Lerner and Loewe wrote some great musicals among them Brigadoon, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon and My Fair Lady. Lerner and Loewe musicals have well-crafted lyrics and some haunting melodies that are truly hummable. Gigi has some of their best-loved numbers such as the title song itself, Gigi, as well as Thank Heaven for Little Girls, The Night They Invented Champagne, and I Remember it Well.
There are only a handful of main characters in 'Gigi', and director Timothy Sheader has gathered a number of well-known actors and singers to fill the roles. First up is the ever-excellent Topol as Honore (the part made famous by Maurice Chevalier), Millicent Martin plays Gigi's grandmother, Mamita, and Linda Thorson (famous for her part in the TV series The Avengers) plays Aunt Alicia. And they all do a sterling job in their respective roles. Linda Thorson excels as Alicia, dealing with lawyers with businesslike contempt.
Yannis Thavoris's simple but effective design turns the leafy stage into a convincing corner of Paris thanks to a long iron walkway that sweeps around the back of the stage, providing a promenade for the ensemble of beautiful courtesans and characters alike. The design also incorporates two versatile pieces of street furniture that are almost instantly converted into interiors. Neat and inventive.
The costume design is equally impressive, even if the colour of Topol's mauve jacket in the opening scene was almost identical to that Chevalier wore in the film (but that might have been intentional). The triumph in the costume department, though, are the incredibly striking hats, most of them arranged at jaunty and immensely stylish angles.
Last in the Open Air Theatre's season it may be, but 'Gigi' is by no means least in the quality stakes. In Timothy Shearer's safe hands, the musical maintains the charm and humour that is the hallmark of its enduring success in spite of a storyline that some may find offensive. What really comes across here is a sense of fondness and affection for the piece from all involved. And that's no wonder, because Lerner and Loewe's score and lyrics remain truly captivating and endearing.
What the popular press had to say.....
LIZ HOGGARD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Witty, camp, extremely entertaining." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "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."
External links to full reviews from popular press