Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gigi Sparkles

By James E. Trainor III

ICCT - Gigi is a Tony-Award winning musical from Lerner & Loewe, known for the exuberance and charm of its title character. ICCT's production, directed by Josh Sazon, opens tonight at the Englert.

The show is set in early twentieth-century Paris and tells the story of Gaston (Per Wiger), a bored bon vivant, and Gigi (Noel Vandenbosch), his young friend, who is idiosyncratic but charming.

Gaston is pushed into the Parisian nightlife by his womanizing uncle Honore (Stephen Swanson) night after night, but he has grown tired and jaded by the sensual excess. Meanwhile, Gigi is becoming a young woman, and is being prepared for the life of a courtesan by her Mamita (Mary Wedemeyer) and her Aunt Alicia (Krista Nuemann).

When Gigi and Gaston meet, they find such relief and respite together, enjoying such a simple and unique delight in each other's company that they hardly realize they are falling in love. Mamita and Alicia are not so oblivious, however, and Alicia quickly maneuvers Gaston into a grandiose offer of love in the style of the most fashionable prostitutes in Paris. Such an arrangement, however, would destroy the the spirit of the vibrant Gigi. Gaston is faced with a dilemma: keep her on as a mistress and ruin her reputation, or propose marriage to a poor girl far below his social station?

For a funny and romantic musical, Gigi has some rather dark undertones, and this production does a wonderful job of navigating them. It's very conscious of the misogyny of the setting, and the bawdy jokes and jaunty songs play alongside the serious dramatic decisions the characters must make. Josh Sazon's direction draws this all together well, and his cast is energetic and charming.

Noel Vandenbosch's Gigi is a particular delight. The structure of the show is challenging for an actress, as the carefree childish moments are spent quite quickly and Gigi must undergo a complete transformation as she grows up and learns her family's trade.

In the early scenes she flies around the stage with youthful energy. She is adorable with Wiger and works particularly well with Neumann, responding to her aunt's lessons with befuddled attempts to comply. In her innocence she is immensely adorable, which makes the story that much sadder. Vandenbosch is an excellent singer as well, and her energetic renditions of "The Night They Invented Champagne" and "I Never Want to Go Home Again" are a lot of fun.

The true triumph, however, is in the transformation into the adult Gigi, trained by her Aunt in the petty, vain concerns of social climbers. She's ready to accompany Gaston, according to Aunt Alicia - and earn a pretty price for it - but in the meantime she's lost a lot of the girlish charm that he fell for in the first place. It's a devastating effect, carried off quite well by Vandenbosch's acting choices. When she comes on stage at the top of the second act, her choice of words and tone of voice tells volumes about the "training" that went on offstage.

Per Wiger, for his part, is entertaining and sympathetic as Gaston. He is strong right from the beginning, able to pull of the challenging acting trick of being extremely bored without being boring. He is a great scene partner with Swanson and a refreshing companion for Vandenbosch. In his solo moments, he takes the stage with charisma and confidence: his "Gigi" goes from funny to sad to sentimental in a few well-played roller-coaster verses.

The other principals round out the cast well. Krista Neumann is energetic and very funny as the vain and greedy Alicia. The first time she comes on stage, the energy of the piece increases tenfold. Stephen Swanson is also quite good as Honore. Though his physical choices are sometimes stiff and awkward, he fills the role with energy and charm and has a wonderful voice. Mary Wedemeyer does not seem as solid next to these two; in the early scenes she is timid and doesn't commit to choices with a lot of energy. The jokes don't land and "I Remember It Well" in particular is not the witty back-and-forth it could easily be. In the later scenes she brings it around, however, standing up firmly but quietly for Gigi's choices.

The ensemble is very strong here, with a lot of great individual performances - Jeff Emrich, K. Linsday Eaves, Stephen J. Polchert, and Roxy Running stood out in particular - and a general feel of a world with a lot going on. The final scene in Paris was staged quite well, as was "She's Not Thinking of Me." The set is flexible and allows a lot of room for these dynamic ensemble numbers.

Gigi is a fun and energetic show that really has a lot to say about love and being true to yourself. ICCT's company has done a great job bringing this classic musical to the Englert. The show opens tonight, March 1st, at 7:30pm, and continues through March 4th, with a 7:30pm show Friday and Saturday and a 2pm matinee on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets here.

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