"Gigi' is the perfect holiday Champagne musical

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Colette’s 1944 work involves Gilberte “Gigi” and her training to become a young woman of high learning and loose morals who will ideally serve as the mistress of an older man. The novella ends when the wealthy, cultured Gaston falls in love with Gigi and marries her.

The work served first as the basis for a 1949 French film, and then a 1951 Broadway play by Anita Loos. Colette herself picked an unknown ingénue named Audrey Hepburn to play the title role. Hepburn’s Broadway debut, the play earned her a Theatre World award.

Audiences are most familiar, however, with the 1958 musical film adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, which did for French actress Leslie Caron’s career what the play did for Hepburn’s. The film version, directed by Vincente Minnelli, also featured Louis Jordan, Hermione Gingold, and a delightfully salacious Maurice Chevalier, whose rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” neatly captured the narrative’s raison d’etre.

“Colette was really a very racy writer, and when people saw the musical film version I don’t think they listened to the dialogue all that closely,” says Gutzman. “The songs softened the harsh edge of the story, but in our small theater, we are able to get more out of the story itself.”

At the time of the film adaptation, the theater world was still overshadowed by the success of “My Fair Lady,” the 1956 Lerner and Lowe musical of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Some critics felt that “Gigi” was no more than a thinly veiled attempt to recreate the success. In fact, New York Times theater critic Bosley Crowther felt the two works bore such a close resemblance “that the authors may want to sue themselves.”

However, the film was well received by audiences, winning nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It is considered the last of the great MGM musicals and was selected for preservation by the U.S. Film Registry of the National Library of Congress. Its songs, including “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” “I Remember It Well” and “The Night They Invented Champagne” have also stood the test of time.

One the film’s most striking aspects was Sir Cecil Beaton’s Academy Award-winning costumes and production design, lavishly similar to what he had done for “My Fair Lady.” Gutzman admits recreating that look is a challenge for Off the Wall’s budget and space, but the production does its best to make up for its limitations.

“We have used the space in a really creative way and tried to capture the colors of the art of the period,” he says. “We have scrounged, borrowed, rented and bought costumes from all over, and I am trying to color coordinate each scene.”  

Gutzman also is using color wheels to give the two-level set a “Moulin Rouge” effect that he feels will successfully carry through the look of the period, with little lost in the intimate setting. “Eighty percent of the show concerns five people, so it suits our intimate nature,” he says. 

Finally, although he lacks a Caron, the director is very happy with his Gigi.

“Our Gigi is the magnificent Liz Mistele, probably the single most lauded actress in Milwaukee today,” he says. “I cannot think of a single other local actress who has gotten as many rave reviews as Liz. And not only is she tiny, but youthful enough looking to bring the part to life effectively.”

That’s up to the audience to decide, but Gutzman is confident the holiday crowd will enjoy “Gigi” for the story it tells and the songs it sings so very well.

ON STAGE

Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee, presents “Gigi” Dec. 14–31. Call 414-327-3552 or go to www.offthewalltheatre.com.