“Gigi” for a New Generation, Starring Vanessa Hudgens

Vanessa Hudgens brings verve and vivacity to a reimagined version of the classic musical “Gigi”—a production equally memorable for its rich contributions from Tony winner Victoria Clark, as the carefree young girl’s indulgent grandmother.

“Gigi” has just opened at the Neil Simon Theatre, following a world premiere at the Kennedy Center earlier this year.

Hudgens, who found fame with Disney’s “High School Musical” series, makes her Broadway debut as the bubbly title character, who is expected to follow in the footsteps of her “Mamita” (Clark) and aunt (Dee Hoty, of “Footloose”), both self-assured courtesans in La Belle Epoque Paris.

In their midst are the requisite love interest for Gigi (Corey Cott, of “Newsies”) and the young man’s uncle, who is also Mamita’s old flame (Howard McGillin, Broadway’s record-breaking “Phantom”). At heart, “Gigi” is about two young people who figure out they were meant to love each other—after everyone on stage and in the audience already knows it.

“Gigi” was born of a 1944 Colette novella and first adapted as a straight play, starring Audrey Hepburn. The musical film, with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and score by Frederick Loewe, won the best picture Oscar a decade later. A stage musical in the early 1970s didn’t fare well.

This update, directed by Eric Schaeffer (“Follies”) comes with a revised book by Heidi Thomas, of the BBC’s “Call the Midwife,” and is choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, whose ebullient work elevates “On the Town.”

Hudgens is effervescent as can be as the girl on the cusp of womanhood, blessed with (and burdened by) the guidance of the two older women, who know what kind of trouble a pretty young thing could find in Paris.

There is, as you might anticipate, an element of Eliza Doolittle in Hudgens’s endearing performance—she makes these grand, oversized gestures while gamely learning how to pour coffee or even settle into a chair the proper way.

Cott’s Gaston Lachaille, the “Sugar Prince,” is a playboy bored with his life in Paris—so tired, in fact, that even his uncle (McGillin) tells him: “You should have more love affairs!” Cott has a stunning voice, on display noticeably in solos and ensembles pieces such as the first act closer “The Night They Invented Champagne.”

He and Hudgens are sweet together, and seem to share a genuine rapport.

Hudgens may have the drawing power, but Clark is crafting a performance that will linger after the curtain falls. We learn early on of her star-crossed affair with McGillin’s Honore Lachaille. Where Mamita’s sister sees romance as a means to material riches, Mamita clearly wants more, not just for Gigi, but herself.

Clark (with McGillin, below) hits every note perfectly, particularly in the standards “I Remember It Well” and “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” the latter a duet with Hoty’s Aunt Alicia—was anyone else not expecting this as a duet between two women? Clark imbues Mamita with a sweet sadness that keeps you rooting for her.

Hoty is deliciously venomous vetting Gaston’s lawyers and making sure her niece will want for nothing. It’s obvious Alicia cares for her sister and grand-niece, she’s just more practical by nature, grabbing what she can from men and using it to maintain her independence.

As Honore Lachaille, McGillin does a fine job of being both good-natured and rakish. His introduction creates the musical’s atmosphere, giving us the idea we will be moving among people who enjoy long-term affairs, but rarely marry. Steffanie Leigh (“Mary Poppins”) has some delightful scenes as Liane d’Exelmans, Gaston’s girlfriend early on.

“Gigi” boasts classic orchestrations, Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous costumes and appealing dance numbers. It’s a delightful production.

“Gigi,” with an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. Tickets: $75.75-$156.75. Call Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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