Vanessa Hudgens (center) and the ensemble in the Broadway-bound "Gigi" at the Kennedy Center.
Vanessa Hudgens (center) and the ensemble in the Broadway-bound "Gigi" at the Kennedy Center. (Joan Marcus)

The Kennedy Center has poured a lot of resources into a perfectly pleasant, not entirely satisfying production of the Lerner and Loewe musical "Gigi." Next stop is Broadway. It may need an extra jolt or two before then.

Perhaps this work, best known in its original, celebrated 1958 cinematic form, is simply not a natural for the stage. Lerner and Loewe didn't have much luck when they tried it in 1973; that New York venture lasted for about 100 performances.


This latest version, adapted by Heidi Thomas (writer of the BBC's popular "Call the Midwife," among other things), is efficient and basically faithful to the original material -- a somewhat watered-down treatment of a Colette novel about a Parisian courtesan-in-training who unexpectedly discovers true love.

The most interesting aspect to the production (to me) is a change in perspective. The score's best-known song, "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," is not sung by the roue character of Honore Lachaille played by Maurice Chevalier on the screen, Alfred Drake on Broadway in 1973.

Instead, perhaps to remove even a hint of dirty old men and all that, the number is given to Gigi's grandmother and aunt, who have their own, very specific reasons to appreciate the growth of girls into womanhood.

Any staging of "Gigi" requires a sizzling artist in the title role, someone who can convincingly make that transition in a flash (there isn't much time for subtle transformation). That someone also needs to match distinctive acting with an extra dash of musicality.

Vanessa Hudgens, best known for her performances in the "High School Musical" movies, does not exactly set the stage on fire. She is charming and natural enough as young Gigi, to be sure, and has the assurance to convey the dawn of maturity.

But Hudgens never completely fleshes out the character, never fully dominates the stage. And her singing is of the generic variety that defines all too many performers today (a tendency to strain when the music heats up doesn't help).

It is possible that the actress will, like Gigi, grow into the assignment, reveal more layers, more personality. She certainly has some seasoned artists onstage to inspire her.

This production would be well worth catching if only for Victoria Clark's exquisite, even affecting performance as Mamita, Gigi's sensitive grandmother. Clark rings true at every turn. Her vocalism, warm of tone and incisive of phrase, provides a master class in vintage Broadway style.

There's a good deal of stylishness, too, from Corey Cott in the role of Honore's nephew Gaston, who thinks of Gigi as a fun little kid until she suddenly isn't.

Cott easily conveys Gaston's ennui and frustration with the pace of early-1900s Paris, and he gets to the heart of the big moment when the character tries to comes to grips with his feelings for Gigi. He sings the show's title song, especially the opening verse, with admirably nuanced phrasing.

Howard McGillin offers winning insouciance as Honore and interacts delectably with Clark; they make their duets "I Remember It Well" and "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" major highlights.

As the coolly calculating Aunt Alicia, Dee Hoty, with her hands moving in ever-theatrical fashion, seems to be channeling Agnes Moorehead, who played the part in the 1973 staging, and maybe something of Coral Brown as Vera Charles in "Auntie Mame." The performance could use a little less exaggeration, but it's still rather fun.

The rest of the ensemble does colorful work, guided with a sure hand by director Eric Schaeffer, who keeps the pace brisk, the focus clear. Joshua Bergasse's choreography gets the job done, sometimes with a fresh flourish. James Moore conducts the small, polished orchestra with expert finesse. (Everyone suffers to some extent from tinny amplification.)

Derek McLane has designed a pretty, Eifel Tower-inflected set that allows for the smooth flow of scenes, while Catherine Zuber's costumes provide additional atmosphere and vitality.