Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park presents
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s
Topol as Honore
Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Based on a novel by Colette.
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Choreographer - Stephen Mear
Musical Director – Phil Bateman
As produced by Edwin Lester for the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera Associations
And by Saint Subber for Broadway
Presented by arrangement with MUSICSCOPE and STAGE MUSICALS LIMITED NEW YORK
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
6 August – 13 September, 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
It is 1910 and Paris is awash with gossip about its bourgeoisie. Rich young playboy and sugar heir Gaston is at the nucleus of newspaper speculation regarding his on again, off again romances with his partners du jour. In search of sanctuary from the biting backlash of early 20th century Parisian celebrity culture, he makes regular visits to the home of his thankfully unpretentious friend, Mamita, formerly the favourite mistress of his uncle Honore, who is himself, an aging playboy. While visiting his friend, Mamita, Gaston also enjoys the antics of her innocently playful, sixteen year old granddaughter Gigi who, unbeknown to him, stands poised upon the threshold of young womanhood. However, Gigi’s great Aunt Alisia, who has spent her life as a courtesan reaping financial rewards from one wealthy lover after another, is aware of her niece’s impending potential and hurriedly draws up plans for her future.
This entertaining, socially aware musical is typical of the intelligently composed cannon of the unlikely team of American dress shop heir Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, an immigrant fourteen years his senior who came from Berlin with his musical family. However, despite any differences, (and legend has it that there were many) theirs is a canon which includes such timeless, oft revived works as class system highlighting My Fair Lady, based on G.B. Shaw’s play
Pygmalion, and Camelot, about the betrayal strewn travails of King Arthur, his Lady, Guinevere and Lord Lancelot adapted from T.S. White’s novel, The Once and Future King, along with several other Broadway and West End successes. The 1958 Hollywood film of Gigi, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starred a dewy eyed Leslie Caron in the title role, ultra suave Louie Jordan as her friend Gaston, and Maurice Chevalier in a definitive performance as senior playboy Honore.
Press night was in synch with the tone of the production itself – surprisingly warm and bright. This production of Gigi boasts most notably, an unmatchable performance by the wonderful Chaim Topol, the actor who made the role of Sallah in Fiddler on the Roof his own. Here, he sheds light, not only on Honore’s resigned perception of himself as an aging philanderer, but also on the romantic mythology he once believed about himself in his youth, lending a bittersweet layer to his performance. As Honore, the snow on the roof, fire in the furnace gentleman who also functions as a narrator of sorts throughout the performance Topol should be a shoe in for an Olivier nomination. His delightfully droll renditions of ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ and ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’, as well as his memorable duet with the marvellous Millicent Martin in the role of his old flame Mamita on that all time classic of romantic irony, ‘I Remember It Well’ are among the shimmering highlights of this production, and would alone, be worth the price of admission.
Happily, though, there are several other performances of note in this production, which are also pivotal ones, collectively making it a frothy, but nonetheless, satisfyingly saccharin free evening of theatre. For example, luminous Lisa O’Hare, who is quite believable as both the teenage tomboy Gigi, as well as the lovely young lady of principles she becomes, Thomas Borchett, who intermittently generates smiles and nods of acquiescence as the alternately bored or baffled Gaston, and Linda Thorson, who garners many laughs (some of recognition) as the rather formidable, hard bargaining Aunt Alicia in her outrageously coloured gowns, dripping with jewels (only expensive please!), making for a full complement of very talented performers.
I’ll admit that in hindsight, some portions of Gigi almost seem to function as a sort of reprise to certain scenes from My Fair Lady, with it’s ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’ revelations on the part of Professor Higgins being transferred onto Gaston here, as he realises that Gigi is actually, a young woman to be reckoned with, a la Eliza Doolittle. Even his uncle Honore’s delayed appreciation of his former flame Mamita and his subsequently regretful admittance that he may have lost his only chance of grabbing the gold (wedding) ring by letting her go, seem to echo former Lerner and Lowe role reversal glories. However, it is interesting to make note of the fact that in My Fair Lady, Eliza is transformed at the hands of men,while Gigi is changed at the hands of women, according to the ideas women hold in relation to what men want from them. Therein is the show’s main political statement, however cleverly sugar-coated, along with the notion that unwittingly foreshadows society’s current obsession with instant celebrities and their belief that those who take the ‘easy’ way up should grab whatever they can, while they can. Rather than have a protagonist who falls in love with his own creation, Eliza Doolittle, flower-girl cum ‘paramour fit for a prince,’ as in My Fair Lady, Gigi allows both Gaston and Gigi the choice of either trodding the same tired and untrue paths as their familial predecessors or working together to redefine the rules of the game of love. All of which, ties in neatly with the empowering of young people through the ‘invention’ of the teenager in the mid to late ‘50’s, and, subsequently, the generation gap, both still highly topical themes in 1958.
Gigi also plays with stereotypes and English speakers’ phobias and misconceptions about foreigners, and the way in which the behaviour of the French (ever in the foreground when it comes to love, at least to us) now seems to make statements about other cultures, in that neither America or Great Britain would even come close to matching their allegedly progressive attitude towards affairs of the heart at the turn of the 20th century until well after the 1960’s ‘free love’ era, if it ever was…But part of the fun of this show is the it toys with myths and misconceptions!
Initially, I found the pronounced English (as opposed to French) accents of Thomas Borchett as Gaston and Lisa O’Hare as Gigi slightly jarring, but, as the characterisations of both actors are very well enacted and their timing is so true under the fine directing of Timothy Sheader, I soon found myself forgiving and forgetting any momentary foibles and willingly sitting back to enjoy the performance. So accessible and amiable is the nature of this production that it enables one to appreciate both the wisely witty lyrics of its songs, as well as the nuances of its vibrant script.
The band, under the direction of Phil Bateman, was, admittedly, a trifle too loud at times, but this was quickly put down to press night over enthusiasm, quite understandable in light of the aforementioned. Designer Yannis Thavoris has created an impressively versatile set, which, at the outset, seemingly consists merely of a couple of atypical Parisian advertising kiosks. However, when opened out they become the portrait strewn walls of Mamita and Gigi’s cosy sitting room, and Aunt Alicia’s multi-mirrored dressing room. Turned, they become the book lined walls of a solicitor’s office, a fitting backdrop for the comical routine accompanying ‘The Contract’ which was riotously performed by Millicent Martin as Mamita and Linda Thorson, as Aunt Alicia, along with other enthusiastic and talented members of the company. A well thought out, verdigris wrought iron looking walkway spiralling upwards at the back of the stage creates the romantic allusion of a bridge over the Seine and allows the actors to come and go in plain sight of the audience, enabling reactions and afterthoughts to be appreciated. The show’s costumes, which are gorgeously garish for the courtesans, dapper for their ‘gentlemen’ and richly distinguished for Honore and his nephew Gaston have also been designed by Yannis Thoavoris, a name said twice to ensure remembrance. Yannis’ terrifically effective costumes are in especially effervescent evidence during the show stopping ensemble number, ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’, lead by sweet voiced Lisa O’Hare as coming of age Gigi. O’Hare could easily assume the lead in any musical requiring a young woman in its starring role, as her confidence, stage presence and vocal ability hit all the right marks, and do so especially well in this subverted transformation tale. Hats off to Choreographer Stephen Mear and the fine cast of this production of Gigi as well, for utilising both the wry and buoyant numbers of the show itself, as well as the space the Open Air Theatre offers to maximum, very enjoyable effect.
I’ve always liked seeing shows at the Open Air Theatre, as it’s a venue which allows for all sorts of impromptu things, like interval picnics and summer toasts under the stars. But attending this sparkling production of Gigi on an evening potentially threatened with heavy rain or, on any other occasion during this atypically wet British summer would be cause enough for celebration, whatever the weather.
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
Inner Circle, Regent’s Park
London NW1 4NR
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