Vanessa Hudgens, the ingénue of High School Musical fame, has chosen the perfect vehicle for her Broadway debut, playing the title role in an updated version of Gigi, the very stage show (but, alas, non-musical) that launched the career of an unknown Audrey Hepburn back in 1951. Both tomboyish and alluring, Hudgens shares Hepburn’s spritely qualities (as well as a great set of eyebrows), yet is equally convincing as a giggly young girl poking fun at her etiquette teacher, and later, as a confident young woman who refuses to let others arrange her life. Hudgens’ creation is an absolute delight–energetic and funny, with eyes that literally twinkle, even when she’s rolling them.
The headliner’s film resume has been a bit scattered, with some lackluster misses in between her few hits, namely High School Musical’s vanilla playground and Spring Breakers’ bikini-clad bloodbath. Some trepidation amongst Broadway fans was valid—many Disney starlets have made careers as singers, but no one ever truly expected Lindsay Lohan or Hilary Duff’s names to grace a musical’s marquee. But those fears have gone unfounded: her childhood background in musical theater was more than sufficient training for the real thing.
Gigi is the story of a young, carefree courtesan-in-training in 1900s Paris, whose easy friendship with rich playboy Gaston Lachaille (Corey Cott) starts to turn into something more as she matures. All the while, Gigi’s endearingly overprotective grandmother Mamita (Victoria Clark), and Mamita’s society-minded sister Aunt Alicia (a hilarious Dee Hoty) meddle in her life, as Gaston’s uncle Honoré (Howard McGillin) does the same in his.
Thanks to a revised book by Call The Midwife’s Heidi Thomas, this modernized Gigi comes bearing extra sass. Instead of feeling distressed when Gaston insults her new gown (“That collar is ridiculous! It makes you look like a giraffe with a goiter”), this Gigi snaps back at his every insult (“The door’s over there. And don’t forget your chocolates. I won’t be able to swallow them because of this terrible goiter”, she quips), and then bids him adieu with all but a kick in the head. Every moment Hudgens isn’t onstage, you long for her return—not only for her dramatic talents, but also because she wears Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes so breathtakingly well.
Her singing voice is smooth, and better suited to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s sparkling classics like “The Parisians” and “The Night They Invented Champagne” than her High School Musical numbers, which didn’t show the extent of her vocal gifts. Hudgens also has magnetic chemistry with Cott’s Gaston, who possesses equal comic skill. One issue the two leads share, however, is a distractingly inconsistent accent, as if they were told to enunciate their consonants, but only remembered that bit of direction part of the time. If their performances weren’t so captivating, those awkward bits would be harder to forgive.
It’s just as fun to watch the veterans–Clark, Hoty, and McGillin–who have no lingual tics, and the lively Parisian chorus, who participate in the high-society merry-go-round even as they mock it. All in all, Gigi is a wonderful treat, and Hudgens may find herself welcomed back to Broadway for years to come. A-